Left – David Whiteley and Brett Ludeman
In 1998 in Laramie, Wyoming, Matthew Shepard (a young gay man) was the victim of a violent hate crime. He was beaten and tortured and left to die; tied to a fence on the outskirts of town. He sat there for six days until being found by a passerby and then tragically died in hospital from severe head injuries. Five weeks after this horrible event, the members from Tectonic Theater Project in New York went to Laramie and interviewed the townspeople, the friends and family of the victim and the friends and families of the perpetrators. From this research came The Laramie Project; a powerful piece of verbatim theatre that gave a new voice to the crime, examined its impact on the Laramie community, and also addressed the wider implications. The play has been performed all over the world and also been made into a film, which was nominated for four Emmys.
10 years later and the company members from Tectonic Theater Project head back to Laramie to mark the anniversary of Matthew's death. Here they revisit old friends, again interview the community and other relevant peoples, and try to ascertain how this event has shaped the community... and whether it has affected a positive change on a broader scale. From this trip comes the aptly titled The Laramie Project – 10 Years Later. A text that does deal efficiently with the aftermath but offers a journey that is somewhat lacking, and smacks of being quite one dimensional.
Red Stitch Theatre Company performed this season in 2011 with great success. Having now been invited to remount at Arts Centre Melbourne, any audience member can see why. The show is slick, well put together and acted by a strong ensemble. There are 60+ characters in The Laramie Project, which are split amongst eight or more actors. With this companion piece we see the same style adopted, with the nine cast members inhabiting numerous roles. The show cranks along and there's really little time for the audience to drift away from the action, lest they lose track of who, what, where and when. The two all important interviews the audience get with The Laramie Project – 10 Years Later, which they don't get with the initial piece, are one-on-ones conducted with Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson – the two men convicted of murdering Matthew Shepard. Prior to now their voices have been heard only via court transcripts and police interviews. Paul Ashcroft's performance as Russell Henderson is brutally truthful. Even though the character is now in his late 20s, the audience see the adolescent who committed the crime and are privy to the helpless realisation of how his actions will impact on his life. Even knowing what he has done, it's heartbreaking to watch. Special mention must also go to Brett Ludeman's turn as Aaron McKinney. Admittedly the character is always going to outrank all others as a point of interest for the audience, but Ludeman's delivery is pitch-perfect.
The mechanics of this production are solid. The problems that exist with the piece concern the script. The main issue is that it just doesn't seem to do much, or go anywhere – which begs the question of what journey it wants an audience to take? At the onset the company are heading back to mark the changes since Matthew's death. They hit those points via branches of media misrepresentation, re-imagined facts about the event, campus politics and gay rights, enduring ignorance and hatred, new found respect and the bright light of hope. All extremely important, but no one event or interview seemingly contributes to a tangible arc in the story.
In the Director's note, Gary Abraham's states, "My entry point as the director of this project was through the notion of construction; how we construct ourselves, how we construct our context, how we construct our history and how we construct the truth." It's extremely fitting for what the script offers and we clearly see this construction throughout the production. The choreography of the movable set, the naked back stage area, costumes, photographs, cameras, etc – it's a running theme, and well defined. As always, Peter Mumford's clever set design compliments the work admirably and Katie Sfetkidis' lighting design effectively conveys the larger moments, and more intimate.
The Laramie Project – 10 Years Later examines the aftermath of a tragic event and questions how (or if) it can change a community. It raises important questions, which warrant further discussion; relevant theatre has a habit of doing that. This production by Red Stitch Theatre is another stellar offering from the company, and runs until the 26th of May at the Arts Centre Melbourne.
Red Stitch Actors Theatre presents
The Laramie Project – Ten Years Later
by Moisés Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project
Directed by Gary Abrahams
Venue: Arts Centre Melbourne, Fairfax Studio
Dates: 16 - 26 May, 2012
Tickets: $35 – $30
Bookings: www.artscentremelbourne.com.au | 1300 182 183.