AISLE SAY Philadelphia


by Moisés Kaufman
and the Members of the Tectonic Theater Project
Directed by James J. Christy
At The Plays & Players Theatre
1714 Delancey Street, Philadelphia, PA
Playing through July 1, 2001
Website: Box Office: (215) 569-9700

Reviewed by Claudia Perry

"The Laramie Project" is Philadelphia Theatre Company's last play of the season. Written by Moisés Kaufman and Members of the Tectonic Theater Project, it is a theatrical docudrama -- a piecing together of the killing of Matthew Shepard, a young, gay, college student -- and the reactions and revelations of the people within the small town where it took place.

In November of 1998, four weeks after this brutal hate crime took place, Tectonic Theater Project sent ten of its members to Laramie, Wyoming, to hold interviews that might become material for a play. The diversified members of the troupe heard a rich and varied collection of community voices. This started a year of trips for more interviews and workshops to organize, edit and dramatize the material. What emerged is the play, "The Laramie Project". Laid out in a traditional three act format, it is presented in a non-traditional way. Characters are introduced by other actors on stage and the versatile ensemble of eight actors play anywhere from six to nine roles a piece.

The story of Matthew's murder is told through the testimony and reactions of the people who last saw him: Matt Galloway, the bartender who saw Matthew leave the bar with his killers; Aaron Kreifels, the young boy who found Matthew brutally beaten and tied to a fence, left to die in the freezing cold; Reggie Fluty, the police woman who first gave Matthew aid and in doing so exposed herself to the Aids virus because his head and face were completely covered in blood: Father Roger, the Catholic priest who wanted to have a vigil for Matthew because it was the "correct" thing to do, regardless of his known homosexuality. We hear the words and thoughts of his friends, acquaintances, enemies and even his assailants. And from these pieces, a mosaic of who and what Matthew Shepard was is formed in the audience's minds. There is no character who actually portrays Matthew. He is left for us to create.

There are moments in this play which are enormously powerful and moving. For this is a story that needs to be and should be told. It is a story of our world, our country, our town, our times. But, though I think that this piece is a moving play and an important one -- to me it is not a great one. Quite frankly, I don't know if a docudrama can be a great play, as the playwright is limited by the truthful occurrence of events. To be true to the story is what's important here -- to tell it "correct" as Father Roger says in the play on more than one occasion. And in that respect, Moisés Kaufman and his company have truly triumphed. For they tell all the story from many sides and viewpoints. There is no sensationalist slant, no particular propensity for the "gay" angle. There is simply the story reported as people saw it, lived it, felt it.

But in not taking a specific viewpoint, and in trying not to be sensationalist, the play never seems to build to a climax. The authors never take us to the fence when Matthew is there. They never re-enact the events leading up to the murder or even the moment of heartbreak -- when Matthew unwittingly leaves with his two murderers. Because this event really happened they choose not to be brutal, graphic or frightening. They choose instead to focus on how Matthew's death has made people more aware of the danger of hate crimes -- how Matthew's death has brought the town of Laramie together. And what they have created is a beautiful tribute to a young man who died much too soon, but who will not be forgotten.

Though it may be lacking in structure there are moments of catharsis throughout this piece, small moments of simple truth that will catch at your heart. And this particular production is wonderfully acted by the entire cast and sensitively directed by James J. Christy. The acting is very low key, very naturalistic, very reality driven. It's as if we were watching all these people on TV. And in point of fact, we probably were.

Though "The Laramie Project" may not be a great play, it still may be viewed as great theater and very worthy of viewing. For it tells a story, a true story, that touches each one of us in a different way. And, hopefully, we can all leave the theater having learned something about this complex world in which we live.

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