‘The Laramie Project’ review
By Adam Tatelman, Arts Editor
Following her work on several previous Douglas College Theatre Department projects, director and teacher Deborah Neville returns to direct Moisés Kaufman’s The Laramie Project, a play constructed from real life testimonies gathered from the residents of Laramie, Wyoming in response to the killing of Matthew Shepard, a local college student who was the victim of a hate killing at the hands of two Laramie residents.
Obviously, prejudicial violence is a sensitive topic. As such, the play is a very sombre affair, and one very grounded in reality. The simple lighting and the use of news footage, police reports, and on-location photographs via overhead projections helps to establish this realistic, historical tone. Each of the actors (James Byers, Nina Dosdall, Sean Brown, Noah Achielkene, Alice Knechtel, Jaimee Armstrong, Logan Tower, and Chantelle Pryznyk) delivers a series of very natural performances.
Each actor plays several characters, though none of them qualify as leads. It was no doubt challenging for the actors to so rapidly switch between so many different characters, and yet every single one manages to be vocally and physically distinct. It could be said that Laramie itself is the lead character, and the townspeople are its quirks. Most are benign, and very few are dangerous. Yet the perpetrators, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, are portrayed with a cautious empathy. It would have been easy to paint them as evil men, but their testimonies convey a genuine remorse and self-reflection.
The most difficult thing for the average theatre-goer to swallow presentation-wise may be the play’s lack of interaction between the actors. This works on a theoretical level—in a sense, the townsfolk are being interviewed by the audience, and their constant separation represents the fracturing of their community in the wake of the killing. However, the fact that most of the performances are being delivered to thin air creates a feeling of disconnect between the audience and the actors.
In some instances, this works in the play’s favour. One of the few moments of contact between the actors involves a staged reenactment of the beating, underscored by the sound of a screeching train wreck—it is likely this scene would not have felt so brutal and impactful if not for the lull that came before it. Unfortunately, the shock-and-awe card can be played only once, and the remainder of the play seems less engaging by comparison.
In one of the interviews, Shepard’s attending physician described two abusive letters she received in response to her treating of Shepard. She then went on to detail the massive influx of supportive and compassionate letters sent to her by concerned people from across the country. This, it seems, is the message of The Laramie Project in a nutshell. Although atrocities do happen and likely always will, we need not let those extremist actions define us as human beings as long as we hold ourselves to a higher moral standard.
Better to light a single candle than to curse the darkness.
The Laramie Project runs from March 18–24 in the Laura C. Muir Performing Arts Theatre at Douglas College’s New Westminster Campus. For show times and tickets, visit thelaramieprojectdouglas.brownpapertickets.com