The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later
Quince Productions’ month-long gay theater festival, GayFest, continues with a production of Moisés Kaufman’s "The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later."
In 2000 when "The Laramie Project" first debuted, it was a thrilling event. It was a stern and comprehensive review of the horror that took place in Laramie when gay youth Matthew Shepard was brutally murdered by Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. Furthermore, it was a fresh and interesting new format for a play. Drawing on hundreds of interviews from town members and those close to the situation, a handful of actors each played about a dozen characters to tell a holistic account of what happened.
Ten years after Shepard was murdered, the company of the play returned to Laramie to see how the tragedy had continued to shape the minds and attitudes of the town’s people. From this second round of interviews, "The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later" was created. It had many of the same elements and techniques as the original play, which seemed purposeful in an attempt at furthering the narrative rather than creating a separate one.
However, it became clear quite quickly that just as Laramie was very much a town changed, so was this particular brand of docutheatre. Unfortunately, much of this change in both cases was for the worse. Where the original play had a sense of urgency and devastation, "Ten Years Later" felt more like an expedition to recreate the success of the first project. There can never be a question of how significant Shepard’s murder was to the town, and to the country for that matter. But too often one had the sense that the production company was playing the part of a troublesome ghost of the event.
Much of the first act was spent talking with either overwrought community members that were involved in Shepard’s life, or uneducated and prejudiced people just trying to move on from this event. It had an overarching feel of pointlessness. It was either a continuation of the same sympathetic people’s stories that can be found in the far superior original play, or a fruitless demonstration of how some people refuse to change. Hope dwindled with every interview, along with my attention span.
Furthermore, the wide-eyed belief that because a famous hate crime had occurred in their town that all of the citizens would suddenly become lifetime HRC members of some sort felt sheltered and idealistic. All of this presented to the audience with something of a "Can you believe this, you guys?," to which I found myself awkwardly looking to the side, as if afraid to disagree with an old friend of mine.
The second act was slightly more interesting in that it focused on the bigger players surrounding the event, including the two killers, Shepard’s parents, and government figures. The larger effects of Shepard’s death were much better illustrated here and made for a more compelling statement. Still, there didn’t seem to be many new things to say.
Even in the show’s big interview with Aaron McKinney, the chief perpetrator in the murder, the company member hammered McKinney in various directions with leading questions to ensure that the narrative remained the same, with no revelations or growth to speak of. "The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later" felt like an exercise in finding answers and significance where there was none. Life goes on and some things change and others never will, even in light of a country-shaking tragedy.
On the production side, the cast itself was able enough. Despite a few having severe problems with hard-to-watch overacting, the flow of this challenging show was smooth. Both the original "Laramie Project" and the sequel are difficult plays to stage as it takes much coming and going from the stage and a constant revolution of characters for the actors to portray.
Quince Productions delivered a stellar presentation of what I felt to be an inevitably flawed show. For those who are interested in how a town progresses from a tragedy such as the murder of Matthew Shepard, this show could prove enlightening for you. If you are expecting the revelatory brilliance of the original show, this might be one to skip.
"The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later" plays through September 1 as part of GayFest at Plays and Players Theatre, 1714 Delancey St. in Philadelphia. For info and tickets, call 215-627-1088 or visit www.quinceproductions.com