This year, the Yale Dramat chose The Laramie Project for its annual freshman show. Written by Moisés Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project of New York City, the play focuses mostly on the turmoil that the town of Laramie experienced in the aftermath of Shepard’s murder. Interestingly, despite the play’s alternative form, it seemed as if the Dramat had made the obvious choice with its pick: the unique structure would impress audiences and demonstrate the deciding panel’s willingness to embrace alternative theatre, while at the same time, the fact that the show has been produced regularly across the nation for over a decade, its discussion of its subject matter is tested and true.
The Dramat’s production manages to bring to light new themes in this oft-produced show. In his depiction of Laramie’s small-town environment, Kaufman does a fantastic job explicating the social and political climates of Laramie while comparing and contrasting its tight-knit community with environments that cityfolk and suburban townies would consider normal. Many Yalies grew up in the latter categories, making it even more crucial for them to comprehend one of the play’s fundamental themes: that Laramie is made up of people no different from you and me, and the play tries to illustrate that situational factors may have contributed to Matthew’s death. It offers no hard answers; after all, the play is more about making an effort to understand rather than solve the mystery of why Shepard was murdered.
Then, there is the question of the structure of the “play” (a word that doesn’t fully or accurately define the piece). In her program notes, director Nailah Harper-Malveux, PC ’16, astutely likens both the incident and the production to a storm. The play does not follow any sort of conventional narrative structure. Instead, Kaufman collected over 200 interviews that the Tectonic Theater Project conducted with people involved in or affected by the murder into one sprawling theater piece. In other words, the play is an explicit depiction of the interviews rather than a dramatization of them. As a result, the piece is sometimes overwhelming and seemingly without direction. Each actor plays multiple roles, and interviews, or “scenes,” start and end abruptly without any sort of flow or relevance between one and the next.
On the other hand, this method is creative and fast-paced; thus, it can be useful in capturing the audience’s attention, assuming that they don’t get lost in the transitions. The production staff uses the play’s strange format phenomenally and to its advantage. Costume changes are simple and quick, with actors only having to don or remove a single piece of clothing—something as simple as gloves or a tie—to change characters. In addition, the minimal amount of stage fixtures allows for the space to be pragmatically used: when one scene finishes, another begins on a different part of stage while quick transitions occur back on the first side. The focus then switches to a scene on a third part of the stage, then back to the first, and so on.
Similarly, the cast excels. Each actor seamlessly disappears and transforms into his or her character, with visible tears and anger that radiates into the audience. Some actors even plays roles of the opposite gender—and convincingly so. Thanks to the cast and crew’s innovation and hard work, the production avoids messiness, instead carefully and artistically conveying the chaos that the “storm” of Shepard’s death left in its wake.
Unfortunately, the play is overly didactic at some points, though to no fault of the production staff. Plays of this sort with such heavy and controversial subjects depend heavily on the beliefs and biases of their creators, and in this case, it becomes clear quickly that Kaufman wants his audiences to experience sadness (and perhaps, in some way, guilt) about the death of Matthew Shepard. Nonetheless, the narrative also questions our commonly held beliefs about places like Laramie and their residents. There are many interviews, for instance, with individuals who “disagree” with the “homosexual lifestyle,” yet speak completely rationally and often sympathize most with Matthew and his family. It’s moments like these that give Laramie its magic, reminding us again that the point of the play isn’t to identify differences, but to find common ground.
All in all, The Laramie Project exceeds expectations and refutes potential concerns largely thanks to its production staff’s nearly flawless execution and its unbelievably versatile cast. The freshman show’s production of The Laramie Project succeeds in underscoring the importance of understanding and honesty at Yale, and really anywhere in the world.