When Jonas Sloanker, a gay man played by senior Alexander Palmer, cried “I want to know what actual good is going to come out of this!” towards the end of the show, he voiced one of the play’s central themes: Will some good arise from Matthew’s death?
“The Laramie Project,” directed by seniors Gemma Breit and Robert Stevenson and sophomore Abie Sidell, centers on the true story of how Matthew Shephard, a gay college student in Laramie, Wyoming, was murdered. “Laramie,” this year’s winter drama, was produced by senior Allegra Flamm, sophomore Michael Silverblatt and freshman Ashley McQuiller.
“The Laramie Project” consists of real (albeit edited) interviews conducted by the Tectonic Theater Group, the theater group that crafted the play, with the townspeople of Laramie. Although the sometimes-dry dialogue and lack of plot give “The Laramie Project” the potential to drag-and it did lag at some points-the directors solved this problem with a visually engaging set and fast-paced blocking.
The set, designed under the guidance of tech directors Eunju Namkung and Andrew Labunka, was divided into sections: a bar and a desk at opposite ends of the stage, an open space in between and a staircase and podium in the back. The 20 or so actors moved from place to place well, playing the roles of close to 60 characters by becoming different characters in each separate space. In general, the actors continually provided clear character shifts despite minimal costume changes by taking on different postures, accents and gestures.
As shadows crossed the stage, a spotlight shone on senior Grace Klein, the show’s first narrator. Each scene had a different narrator, a member of the Tectonic Theater Group telling his or her part of the story. Though these narrators made it easier to grasp the plot, their often flat, almost robotic delivery of their lines hurt the show’s mood. The exception was senior Ray Hicks, who managed to bring some charisma to his narration.
The show began with a description of Laramie by the inhabitants themselves. They asked the audience not to condemn their town because of what had happened there. The cast did an excellent job of fairly presenting the townspeople’s view of the murder. Although the audience was initially inclined to distrust the townspeople, by the end of the show many were no longer sure.
One of the characters, Jedidiah Schultz, also played by Palmer, tried to explain his values’ transformation after Shephard’s death. Jedidiah’s parents are against his acting as a gay character in “Angels in America,” a play by Tony Kushner about homosexuality and AIDS. Palmer portrayed his character vividly, and we immediately understood his conflict with his parents. After striding onto the stage with an energized “Ugh, my parents!” Palmer delivered a comical, yet powerful speech about convincing his parents to let him play the role.
Senior Shaker Islam played a limousine driver living in Laramie. Islam was candid, often adding comic relief to the production with perfectly timed delivery of humorous lines. Also noteworthy were performances by sophomore Yana Azova and senior Amy Crehore. Crehore played a cop who helped take Matthew Shepard to the hospital and Azova played the cop’s mother. Their chemistry was realistic and moving. Senior Taylor Shung skillfully portrayed Romaine Patterson, one of Matthew’s closest friends. She talked about Matt as if she had really known him and accurately depicted the emotions accompanying the loss of a friend.
Matthew’s funeral was the show’s most powerful scene. The majority of the cast sat solemnly in the background singing “Amazing Grace” as Reverend Fred Phelps, played by senior Ray Hicks, offered a vicious protest against homosexuality. When a furious Romaine decided to take action, she equipped fellow cast members with angel wings and they stood in front of Phelps and his entourage in a formation that resembled the figurehead of a ship. The staging of this scene was striking.
The theater crews performed well, if not as well as the cast. Senior and lighting director Simon Szybist made many innovative choices. During one scene, when reporters visit Laramie, the four reporters came to the front and spoke over each other while different colored lights flashed all over the stage. The costumes, designed by seniors Helen and Julia Cabot, were simple but effective. The decision to put cast members in all black when reading journal entries from the original company that put on the show exemplified this creative simplicity. These all-black costumes contrasted with the more every-day wear seen during the rest of the show.
At two and a half hours, the production would have benefitted from more cuts. Some scenes, such as a scene in a restaurant involving a theater company member and a waitress, seemed out-of-place and unnecessary. In addition, the lighting crew had difficulties hitting their cues in both performances, which detracted from the overall effect.
At a high school in Acton, Massachusetts, church groups and parents fiercely protested a performance of “Laramie” in late 2007. Even if Stuyvesant is a more liberal environment, taking on such an honest, unembellished and yet controversial script is a challenge for any theater group. With inventive directing and a strong ensemble, the Laramie cast and crew used this powerful and challenging script to execute one of the best winter dramas in years.