Written by Moisés Kaufman
and the members of Tectonic Theater Project
Head Writer Leigh Fondakowski
Directed by Mr. Kaufman
Union Square Theatre / 100 East 17th Street / (212) 307-4100

Reviewed by David Spencer

Well, I think it can be said, after "Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde" and, currently at the Union Square Theatre, "The Laramie Project", that writer-director Moisés Kaufman has created a new genre of theatre–theatrical journalism. "New," of course, is a relative term, for certainly there appears sporadically, every number of seasons, a play whose text is taken nearly-or-completely from real-life transcripts of hearings, media coverage, and interviews: "In the Matter of J. Robert Oppenheimer", "Are You Now or Have You Ever Been?", "Inquest" (about the Rosenbergs), "The Trial of the Catonsville Nine" and 1972’s less-reportorial-than-crafty "An Evening With Richard Nixon and…" by Gore Vidal (in which a fictional tribunal of dead Presidents judged the then-current executive-in-chief by his own publicly-made statements), to name the more prominent examples of the last 35 years or so.

But Mr. Kaufman seems to have refined the technique, creating the theatrical equivalent of the best documentary film scope, rhythm and economy, quick-cutting between interviews, inserting media bytes, providing just enough background and commentary to make the sense of place increasingly vivid and the focus of the evening–not merely its events, but its explored themes–increasingly more urgent. I suppose there is a degree of agit-prop agenda involved too, though one can’t help but think, at evening’s end, that Kaufman has taken pains to be exhaustively fair. With the Oscar Wilde evening, Kaufman created an arresting "live document" out of existing historical data. But with "The Laramie Project", Kaufman and his company (Tectonic Theater Project) are onto something more urgent–the examination of a recent event (by the standards and expectations of the theatrical process, astonishingly recent), in which virtually all the people being portrayed are still alive.

Ironically and tragically, the person around whom the event centers is dead–that person being Matt Shepard, the short, 21 year old man who, two years ago was abducted from a bar in Laramie, Wyoming, taken to a remote spot, beaten–pleading for his life–into a coma and left for dead. He did die in a hospital two weeks later. His assailants were two young townies; the reason…Matt Shepard was gay.

The case immediately became a high-profile hate crime that attracted not only nationwide media attention, but the attention of Kaufman and his company, who, as articulated in a program note by the auteur, "traveled to Laramie six times [over the year-and-a-half development of the piece] to conduct interviews with the people of the town. [They] transcribed and edited the interviews and conducted several workshops, in which members presented material and acted as dramaturgs in the creation of the play."

There is a minimum of scenery and set, several dozen characters are played by a sterling and variegated company of eight (Stephen Belber, Amanda Gronich, Mercedes Herrero, John McAdams, Andy Paris, Greg Pierotti, Barbara Pitts, Kelli Simpkins). The transformations from one character to another are made with a simple change of posture, or re-adjustment of a costume piece (say a scarf, draped over the shoulders for one character, worn about the head for another), and the segues from one to the other are as economical–upon finishing a monologue, an actor will snap out of character, announce the name (and if it exists, the title) of the next Laramie citizen and the next actor takes over. Cross-cuts, cross-fades, dialogues and a small amount of "newsreel recreation" are employed as well.

It becomes apparent, as the first of the play’s three acts–it seems to need that old-fashioned breakdown, to divide the event into three (before the incident, during the incident, after the incident), and also for emotional resonance–that Kaufman and company are much less concerned with the crime itself as the ripple effect in its wake; the play, in being called "The Laramie Project" is appropriately titled. For this is really the profile of a town: a town that had one sense of self-identity before the murder, and one that struggled mightily with itself to find another in the aftermath; a semi-conservative midwest town to be sure, not always enlightened, but a town of mostly decent citizens, forced to examine the extent of their own conscience and culpability. And coming to as many different determinations as there are citizens represented. Select citizens appear multiple times, creating a core of "regulars" to whom we return at intervals, which provides a progress report of the town’s evolving thoughts and feelings.

For a new theatrical form in the new millennium, Kaufman’s journalism manages to suggest the most powerful plays and movies about morally charged real-life events that proliferated in the late 50s and the decade of the 60s, in that it has an unusual power to rouse strong emotion in the audience, to make a bygone incident arouse the passions of one that happened this morning. Perhaps just as important, "The Laramie Project" seeks as much to heal as to provoke thought. And it does.

Finally, "The Laramie Project" is as self-contained as it is current; years from now, perhaps decades, it will play as well as it does today, for it’s like something out of a time-capsule–a dynamic snapshot of American history.

Add Mr. Kaufman’s name to the ranks that include Ken Burns, Michael Moore and other great documentary chroniclers of the era. And add this legend after his entry on the list: he’s the one who didn’t need film to do it…

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