How does a community face up to its history? And how does that community both move on while holding onto a pivotal moment that still elicits reactions from tears to indifference to denial?
These questions rose to the surface as I experienced the powerful production of The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later produced by Dark Horse Theatre Company, in residence at Grace in The Plains, just southwest of the DC area on the outskirts of Fauquier County. But this show is well worth the drive down Interstate 66 or Route 29. (Fans of Dark Horse Theatre might be aware they often perform at ArtsSpace in Herndon.)
As implied by the title, this play is a sequel to Tectonic Theatre Project’s The Laramie Project, the landmark piece of verbatim theatre. On the heels of the 1998 torture and murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay university student, members of the New York-based theatre traveled to Laramie, Wyoming, to talk to friends, family and town citizens about Shepard and their reaction to his death, ruled a hate crime. By the time the two confessed perpetrators were charged and incarcerated for the beating and murder, Tectonic had amassed hundreds of hours of interviews, as well as court documents, news accounts and personal journals. This material formed the basis for the documentary-style play, The Laramie Project, premiering in 2000 which has now been seen by an estimated 30 million people around the world, shining a spotlight on such a hate crime.
Tectonic Theatre Project members returned to Laramie in 2008, to discover the long-term effects of Shepard’s murder, revisiting people and places from the previous visits as well as interviewing new subjects. They expected a short epilogue. But the Tectonic company members discovered many more changes over the ten years, making startling discoveries about the community and how the narratives of Matthew Shepard, and his convicted killers had changed. The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later follows the same structure as the original play, which is effectively presented by director Natasha Parnian in an intimate, in-the-round presentation which brings the captured moments to life vividly.
The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later closes January 25, 2020.
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If you have not seen the first play in the Laramie cycle, never fear. This sequel is structured so that context is offered to set the scene for what is to come. Through narrators – Cheryl Lane and Celia Cooley – each section is introduced succinctly. The narration also clarifies who is speaking at any given time since the ensemble of more than a dozen actors takes on nearly a town’s worth of characters throughout the two acts.
Portraying the members of Tectonic Theatre Project are Matthew Butcher (Andy Paris), Ken Gilfillan (Moises Kaufman), Samantha Mitchell (Leigh Fondakowski), Richard Padilla (Greg Pierotti), and Matthew E. Thomas (Stephen Belber), commenting on the action and conducting interviews with the Laramie citizens. These actors also take on a variety of other subjects throughout the piece, as well as the other members of the ensemble – all showing distinct characterizations, which helps the observer keep track of each individual.
Director Parnian is to be commended for using her ensemble with such precision and creativity. Among many strong moments, two stand out in particular. Matthew Butcher not only plays one of the Tectonic company members, he was challenged with portraying both Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney, Shepard’s convicted killers. At the top of the second act, Tectonic member Stephen Belber – effectively played by Thomas – is allowed to interview Henderson. Butcher, as Henderson, appears soft, sensitive, and completely out of place in a prison, while showing both shame and regret. Butcher perfectly embodies a scared man who seems more like a kid. By contrast, when Tectonic member Greg Pieroti – a vivid portrayal by Padilla – meets McKinney in the same prison, he finds a relaxed, contented, braggart who laughs about what he did to Shepard. As Pieroti reacts with amazing restraint at the remorseless McKinney, the convict shows his true colors of hatred, disdain – all embodied with a palpable physical confidence by Butcher.
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The same trio of actors, when portraying Paris and two of the investigating officers from Shepard’s original case, use just a few benches to reconstruct the crime scene – a rustic fence on the outskirts of Laramie where McKinney with Henderson’s help tied up and beat Matthew to death.
Singling out Butcher, Thomas and Padilla is not to diminish the rest of the engaging ensemble who rise to the challenge of playing multiple characters with simple change of a hat, a scarf or a physical change. Others include Ken Gilfillan, as Moises Kaufman, reacting to an editorial in the local paper or interviewing Shepard’s still grieving mother Judy, played with emotional impact by Kimberly Kemp. Star Babatoon as Catherine Connolly, triumphant when the state legislature defeats a discriminatory bill or her spot-on portrayal of Henderson’s frail and elderly grandmother pleading her grandson’s case one more time. Nailah Hunter, Marcia Murray, Angie Mirae, Cary Reese, Brandy Smith, and Allison Turkel each contribute as ensemble members throughout the performance.
It should be noted this account of the crime was later investigated by ABC’s “20/20,” positing it was not a anti-gay hate crime but a robbery or drug deal gone wrong. As Tectonic Theatre members discover, the counter-narrative had taken hold in Laramie, with many citizens now believing the spin and forgetting what had been established during with trial and convictions ten years before.
The documentary-style of both plays in the Laramie cycle could have ended up as detached sound bytes but the sensitivity of the Tectonic Theatre Project members and their care and attention crafting a strong, warts-and-all narrative of the Laramie community and their reactions to Shepard’s death and the progress (or lack thereof) in the world ten years on ends up as a most effective means to hold the mirror up to this microcosm. Dark Horse’s production took a challenging play and made it engaging and accessible in a most theatrical manner.
The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later by Moisés Kaufman, Greg Pierotti, Leigh Fondakowski, Andy Paris, Stephen Belber . Directed by Natasha Parnian . Featuring: Star Bobatoon, Matthew Butcher, Celia Cooley, Ken Gilfillan, Nailah Hunter, Cheryl Lane, Kimberly Kemp, Marcia Markey, Angie Mirae, Samantha Mitchell, Ricardo Padilla, Cary Reese, Peyton Slade, Brandy Smith, Matt Thomas, and Allison Turkel . Directing Apprentices: Sarah Akers and Audra Jacobs . Stage Manager Peyton Johnston . Produced by Dark Horse Theatre Company . Reviewed by Jeff Walker.