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Laramie’ addresses hate crimes

Observer Scene | Monday, February 21, 2005

Taking a step inside Laramie, Wyo. in real life isn’t something you’ll necessarily remember. The town, which claims a population of just over 27,000, might seem like just another stopping point in the long trip across the plains of Wyoming.

Taking a step inside “The Laramie Project”, though, is certainly unforgettable.

The play, written by Moisés Kaufman, focuses on the aftermath of the murder of Matthew Shepherd, a 21-year-old homosexual student killed by two young Laramie residents in 1998. The murder was one of the most brutal anti-gay hate crimes to come to light in the United States, and it became a national symbol of intolerance.

“The Laramie Project” explores the thoughts and feelings of Laramie residents, showing a picture of a town trying to cope with a hideously shocking incident and the sudden dark fame that came with it.

Kaufman and fellow members of the Tectonic Theater Project traveled to Laramie to conduct over 200 interviews that were incorporated into the play. The final version contains statements from newscasters, policemen, Shepherd’s friends and family and other people more or less connected with Shepherd and the community of Laramie.

The result is a play that makes a coherent whole out of a series of seemingly isolated speeches. The characters mostly address the audience and rarely each other, which makes the individual voices in the monologues often seem isolated and confused.

However, the actors who perform the monologues drift in and out of a chorus that is the overwhelming voice of the play. The community of Laramie as a whole, represented by the entire cast, expresses incomprehensible pain and anger through its attempt to understand how it could have bred the perpetrators of such a crime and how it can deal with these alienated members of its own family. The script requires little explicit interaction between characters, but as a result it requires exact coordination of the movements of the chorus and the stage and lighting cues.

“Everyone is sort of dependent on each other,” said Louis Jordan, a local actor who auditioned for the play on the recommendation of a Notre Dame professor. “The energies are so interconnected that it’s almost like we are relating to each other.”

Director Anton Juan, a professor in the department of film, television and theater, began work on the play three days after starting his job at Notre Dame in January. Juan only had five weeks to work with the cast members but was impressed by their ability to work so closely together.

“It’s rare to find that with pick up actors,” Juan said. “I think they could become a company now.”

“The Laramie Project” may focus on the death of a young homosexual, but the performance by the department of film, television and theater emphasizes the theme of general hate crimes that runs through it. The murder of Shepherd is a symbol of a variety of hate crimes that are either explicit or implied throughout the show.

The music behind the action onstage emphasizes the way the incident ties into larger themes of hate and humanity. Francisco Feliciano’s Misa Mysterium and Mozart’s Requiem, among other pieces, serve as a universal backdrop for a comparatively small incident.

The set design oddly seems to reflect the state in which the play is set. Skeletal trees, fences and plain boxes can be seen as colorful and complex or incredibly stark depending on the lighting and the mood. The feeling might be familiar to the grasslands, fences and open sky that dominate much of Wyoming. The versatility allows many scenes to blend together in the same space.

The costumes also help the chorus blend together, as silver or black pants and shirts are dressed up when the actors move into different roles. Set and costumes both make use of eye-catching materials that seem to abstract the actors from the words that they speak.

“I think gauze works with memory,” Juan said. “It’s lined, it reminds you of what is inside. It’s very cocoon-like, and wind-like at the same time.”

The performance unquestionably benefits from the facilities in the Decio Mainstage Theater, which allow for better effects than were ever possible in Washington Hall. The trapped stage allows for a beautiful moment when a bigoted preacher emerges onto the stage from glowing red light underneath. He is greeted by a movement of the Requiem that is highly reminiscent of Mozart’s Don Giovanni, an opera in which the devil descends into hell instead of climbing out of it.

“The Laramie Project,” like much of the art which has recently been drawing attention, risks moving into a controversial sphere by addressing the issue of homosexuality. A scene in which a male character appears dressed like a dominatrix sporting the Nazi insignia might raise hackles, but it also provides a striking statement that would be difficult to achieve through subtler means.

“It serves a couple of different purposes,” said Jordan, who performs the scene in the FTT performance. “It’s a parody of the whole idea of Nazism, sort of making Nazis into fools. It also juxtaposes the high emotional scene before it. There’s this counterpoint to take you out of that emotion and look at it from more of a distance.”

In general, the play benefits from the effort to place it in a broad picture and not focus on the particular political issue involved.

“One thing I’m glad Anton has done is to make it a lot more about hate crime than about homosexuality,” junior Mairead Case said.

Parts of “The Laramie Project,” especially the scene by the chorus, might become too abstract for some audience members. But the play is certainly fascinating and provides food for thought on multiple levels. In the tradition of plays that examine hate crimes and the mentality that surrounds them, “The Laramie Project” certainly achieves a unique status.

“The Laramie Project” will be performed Tuesday through Sunday and March 1 through March 3 at the DeBartolo Center for the Performing Arts. Tickets cost $8 for students, $10 for seniors, faculty and staff and $12 for the general public.