November 7, 2007
Laramie lacks luster
SMC's The Laramie Project disappoints
Jon Taylor l managing editor
When a director decides to approach Moises Kaufman’s The Laramie Project, he/she must grapple with the sheer enormity of this kind of production. More than 60 characters, three acts, and serious issues of sexuality are all essential to this play, which concerns the brutal murder of Laramie, Wyo. resident Matthew Shepard, a gay college student afflicted with the HIV virus. Kaufman served as playwright and director of the original staging, and members of his New York-based Tectonic Theater Project spent inordinate amounts of time documenting interviews with residents of Laramie, with the intent of composing a play about the events surrounding Shepard’s death.
St. Michael’s professor Peter Harrigan’s bland interpretation of this epic uses 16 actors instead of eight, comprised of mostly first-years and sophomore students from the college’s drama department. One of the few successes of this The Laramie Project is its male cast, most of whom dominated the stage with superbly nuanced character work. First-year Nathaniel Beliveau is stunning in his first Mainstage performance for St. Michael’s, aptly depicting the straight-face courtroom speech of convicted murderer Aaron McKinney. The same can be said for the extraordinary poise of senior Shawn Campbell, who accurately depicted Rulon Stacey, the CEO and president of Poudre Valley Hospital who held the press conference announcing Shepard’s death. Unlike several other actors in this show who became emotional when it wasn't called for by his/her role, Campbell maintained his composure on stage, never breaking out of character.
The major problem with this production is its misuse and possible miscasting of female characters. Kaufman’s script makes some room for female actors, but only one of Harrigan’s actresses makes a mark on the stage. St. Michael's senior Melissa Briner is remarkable as Reggie Fluty, the police officer who was first responder to the initial call of Shepard’s discovery. Briner radiates sadness in her monologues, particularly when portraying Fluty’s realization that she may have HIV because of contact with Shepard’s blood. Unfortunately, none of the other women in the show are memorable in any sense of the word – a lot of them stoically represented roles that should have been harnessed with serious depth and emotion.
This lack of sentiment can’t just be blamed on the young cast, however. The brunt of this responsibility can be placed on the overall direction of the show. Harrigan’s strange placement of actors, abstract movement, and sloppy multimedia elements were all major distractions to the already slow pacing of the performance. For example, throughout the show, there were projectors displaying imagery from Laramie, including real-life photos of local stores and Laramie residents. Although this media-derived approach is novel and interesting in concept, it was stilted in practice, making the actors seem out of place within the framing that these projectors awkwardly presented.
To some extent, the length of The Laramie Project is a daunting prospect for any director. Kaufman’s incredibly verbose dialogue stretches out the length of acts that could be easily chopped in half. Harrigan should have cut at least 30 minutes from the original script – once the two-hour mark was hit, there was active squirming by audience members. It’s one thing to stay true to the source material, but it’s quite another to keep pointless second-act vignettes in a show that’s already far too long.
As one would assume at a play of The Laramie Project’s magnitude, the cast was met with a standing ovation during the curtain call. I tend to believe that this gratitude towards the show was shown for the important message being projected – not the way that Harrigan and his company chose to embody it.