Masquerade have a well-established reputation for presenting challenging modern theatre and this docu-drama, which over the last few years has been one of the most-performed plays in America, is certainly no exception.
In October 1998 Matthew Shepard, a young gay man, was kidnapped, severely beaten and left to die, tied to a fence on the outskirts of Laramie, Wyoming. Five weeks later, Moisés Kaufman and fellow members of the Tectonic Theater Project went to Laramie, and over the course of the next year, conducted more than 200 interviews with people of the town. From verbatim extracts of these interviews they synthesised The Laramie Project, a chronicle of the life of the town in the year after the murder.
The methodology, employing solely the untutored words of ordinary people, devoid of the imaginative dramatisation of a skilled playwright, might perhaps be expected to result in a lifeless or stilted text. What in fact emerges is a potent, thought-provoking drama, intimate in theme but broad in dramatic scope. The generosity of spirit of many of the interviewees and the bigotry and hatred of many others communicate powerfully, not least due to the immensely creative interpretation of director and designer Danny Waters.
Presenting the play in the round had the desired effect of strengthening the connection between the actors and the audience, outweighing the unavoidable drawback of occasional difficulty with audibility and sightlines. The ingenious use of a camcorder, operated unobtrusively on stage, to project, not onto a blank screen, but onto a slatted wooden construction which fitted appropriately into the overall design, also helped to minimize this effect.
The ‘stage’ took the form of a circular raised wooden dais with three different levels, solidly constructed (obviously with no little effort) and cleverly used to allow continual fluid movement in what might otherwise have been a somewhat static piece. Simple folding chairs were used to create a variety of settings including, with the addition of a single strand of barbed wire, a remarkably effective representation of the cattle fence to which the murder victim was tied, and the coffin in the funeral scene. Props and items of costume remained on stage throughout in wooden crates and were selected, used and returned smoothly by the cast.
An outstanding feature of the production was the complex lighting design. Continually changing colour and intensity and shifting focus, it added immensely to the dramatic nature of the dialogue, if just occasionally leaving faces in darkness. Atmospheric music and effects, including liberal use of smoke, combined to create a wholly appropriate framework for the narrative.
The cast of eleven, remaining on stage throughout, combined to produce a mutually supportive ensemble performance, displaying a tremendous sense of energy and commitment. They portrayed some sixty different individual characters, changing role from minute to minute. All the performances were delivered with courage and honesty, beautifully differentiated one from another. And, importantly, the Wyoming accents were consistent and gave the impression of authenticity, which is all that is required in the English theatre. Remarkably, certain actors even introduced minor variations of accent depending on the social status of their different characters.
The exceptionally informative programme, not surprisingly, stopped short of identifying the characters portrayed by each actor, making it difficult here to give well-deserved individual credit. Among the very many memorable characterisations were those of the bartender who last saw Shepard alive and wondered if he could have done more to prevent the tragedy; the eloquently inarticulate cyclist who first discovered Shephard; the doctor who kept the media informed of Shephard’s condition; the Roman Catholic priest who arranged the candlelit vigil and the anti-gay minister who delivered a fire-and-brimstone sermon; the theatre student whose parents had no problem with his playing a murderer, but refused to countenance his playing a gay; the deputy sheriff exposed to HIV when assisting the wounded Shephard; her mother, ecstatic when fears of infection prove groundless; and, most moving of all, Shepard’s father’s eloquent plea for the culprits not to be given the death penalty – “to show mercy to someone who refused to show any mercy”. The portrayals, emotionally telling as they mostly were, nevertheless included occasional welcome light touches, such as the testimony of the woman whose Laramie home was sufficiently isolated for her to do her housework ”in my altogethers”.
Rather long, at two-and-a-half hours with two intervals, the play nevertheless sustained its emotional hold on the audience, offering insight not only into this particular case but into the changing attitudes of Americans in general – and perhaps a reminder that we are not without our own hate crimes here at home. The opportunity to catch this remarkable performance has now passed, but lovers of serious theatre should watch out for future offerings from this talented company.