The Laramie Project
Review by Sean McQuaid
Humans like to find meaning in stuff — and as an unreasonable facsimile of a human, your pensive prattler is no exception. Watching ACT’s production of The Laramie Project at the Guild, a serious play trying to make sense of a serious real-life crime, I caught myself reading profundity or poetry into random things around me as the evening wore on.
Odd little rectangular strips of paper spiraling aimlessly down onto the stage from somewhere above us; quasi-disembodied sounds of grief from an oft-teary audience during the play; a sleek fox slinking through the half-lit shadows of Victoria Row after the show, wisely shunning the unpredictable bipeds.
It all felt a bit unsettling, unreal, despite watching a play full of real events about real people. The Laramie Project is chock full of unpredictable bipeds, wonderful and awful and everything in between, and one can hardly blame the foxes for avoiding such unfathomably erratic creatures.
Inspired by the brutal murder of young gay man Matthew Shepard on the outskirts of Laramie, Wyoming in 1998, The Laramie Project explores the event and its aftermath, including public debate over how society should deal with anti-homosexual prejudice.
Moisés Kaufman and his Tectonic Theater Project colleagues wrote the play collaboratively, drawn from hundreds of interviews they conducted with Laramie residents after Shepard’s demise. The result is an impressionistic series of vignettes in which eight actors play dozens of different characters talking about Shepard’s life and death and the impact he had on Laramie and the world.
There’s emotional manipulation on the authors’ part, and the play isn’t always subtle or even-handed about its messages, but it’s a moving story — and surprisingly versatile in terms of mood and tone. Often horrific and sad, it’s also disarmingly funny in spots and expresses a hopeful attitude about the future. It’s not just an earnest theatrical screed.
Director Paul Whelan keeps it simple — minimal props and furnishings, practically no set, just eight actors cycling through assorted identities. Screen projections add context and colour, notably images of Laramie, but the real attraction here is Whelan’s omni-faceted acting octet: Guy Brun, Kassinda Bulger, Emily Anne Fullerton, Adam Gauthier, Margaret MacEachern, Keir Malone, Rory Starkman and Tim Wartman.
There are occasional hiccups — actors such as Brun and Steele stumble over their lines briefly in spots (mostly unobtrusively), while Bulger and others could stand to boost their projection ever so slightly on occasion — but all eight actors do fine, memorable work here in impressively varied roles.
Sometimes it’s the specificity of character that impresses, the creation of distinctive personalities like the mannered warmth of Brun’s decent, didactic priest; sometimes it’s interplay, like the easy rapport between a mother and daughter played by MacEachern and Fullerton; sometimes it’s moments of sheer goofy fun, like Fullerton’s over-the-top waitress, Wartman’s folksy Doc O’Connor or Bulger’s giddy reading of student Zubaida Ula’s metadramatic line about the weirdness of becoming a theatrical character.
Other times it’s just sheer emotional punch, ranging from the quiet intensity of multiple Gauthier, Malone and Wartman monologues to the operatic anguish of Starkman’s star turn as Shepard’s would-be rescuer Aaron Kreifels. There’s something and someone for everyone in this richly diverse cast of characters and actors.
Kaufman’s text is repetitive or heavy-handed in spots, but it’s an impressively sweeping, unflinching picture of a community and the crime that rocked it, all the more impressive for its underlying optimism about a potentially better tomorrow. As Doc O’Connor says in a plainspoken ode to mercy and forgiveness, “the whole thing ropes around hope.”