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May 14, 2023:

The Laramie Project reviewed by Rob Stevens

Nearly 25 years after the event, the story of Matthew Shepard still resonates like peroxide on an open cut, like fingernails on a blackboard, like a razor slashing a wrist, exposing veins and nerve endings. On October 7, 1998, two young men abducted Shepard, a petite gay college student, drove him to a remote area outside of Laramie, Wyoming, tied him to a fence, pistol-whipped him and left him to die in the cold of the night. Two-and-a-half decades later, Matthew Shepard’s murder still ranks as one of the most notorious anti-gay hate crimes. Soon after the news was saturated with the details of the crime and Shepard’s death five days later, playwright/director Moises Kaufman and 11 members of his Tectonic Theater Project went to Laramie and began interviewing residents. They returned several times, including for the trials of Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson who were found guilty, and each sentenced to two consecutive life sentences. After conducting over 200 interviews, Kaufman, Ms. Leigh Fondakowski and the company members wrote a verbatim piece of theatre entitled The Laramie Project, and the play premiered in Denver in 2000. It has since played around the country and is currently being given a stellar production at North Hollywood’s The Group Rep.

(all photos by Doug Engalla)

Director Kathleen Delaney has done a masterful job, expertly using the bare playing area and seemingly all of the small theatre, with entrances and exits utilizing all three aisles, making the space and the piece even more intimate. She has chosen a diverse cast of 11 that play the original interviewers and the subjects they interviewed. Each actor performs several roles, each perfectly nuanced, from ranchers to bartenders, from sheriffs to murderers. The tension builds incrementally during the second act as each actor, after a monologue, places a piece of wood unto what will eventually resemble the split-rail fence upon which Shepard died.

The tight ensemble consists of Landon Beatty, Paul Cady, Roslyn Cohn, Julie Davis, Marc Antonio Pritchett, Stephen Rockwell, Jackie Shearn, Margaret Rose Staedler, Cathy Diane Tomlin, Amelia Vargas and Kay Vermeil. They are truly one of the finest ensembles this writer has seen in a very long time. They each play male and female characters, old and young, straight and gay, cosmopolitan and rural with ease. The Laramie Project is not easy to sit through, but it is a must view experience. The production is a sparkling jewel in The Group Rep’s 50-year history.


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