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Kelli Simpkins (center) and cast
in The Laramie Project
(Photo by Joan Marcus)
The actors sit in rows on plain wooden chairs, staring out blankly at the audience. The specter of death hangs heavily in the air. This is not the graveyard scene from Thornton Wilder's Our Town, but Moisés Kaufman might forgive you for thinking that it is. Instead, it's the funeral of Matthew Shepard, one of the many heart-stirring moments portrayed in The Laramie Project, the latest production from Kaufman's Tectonic Theater.

Three years ago, Tectonic seized Off-Broadway with Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, which dynamically portrayed the late-19th-century playwright's downfall through dialogue culled mostly from historical documents and trial transcripts. Now, director Kaufman and members of his company have fixed a spotlight on another turn-of-a-century gay martyr: 21-year-old Shepard, murdered in October 1998 in what is widely regarded as a brutal hate crime.

The Laramie Project, which opened last night at the Union Square Theatre, also uses historical records for its script; but, unlike Wilde in Gross Indecency, Shepard is not depicted here. The central character is the city of Laramie, Wyoming and its citizens--from the chief detective (portrayed by Greg Pierotti) to a local Muslim student (Barbara Pitts)--who, according to Kaufman, were misrepresented in the media circus surrounding the Shepard case. "The media descended," complains a local university professor (Mercedes Herrero), "and then the dialogue stopped." (Set designer Robert Brill lowers five television sets onto his otherwise bare-bones set to give this image vivid life.)

Andy Paris in
The Laramie Project
(Photo by Joan Marcus)
The dramatized result is very much a kind of latter-day Our Town. Like Grover's Corners, and perhaps even London in Gross Indecency, Laramie emerges as Everytown--idyllic to some, stifling to others, but pulsing with the joys, heartbreaks, and ironies that unify the human race across boundaries of space and time. Wyoming may be "cowboy country," in the words of one derisive news account; but it's also the Equality State, a pioneer in women's suffrage. A Baptist minister (played by Amanda Gronich) may be uncompromising in his condemnation of Shepard's homosexuality, but he's equally passionate that Shepard's murderers, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson (both portrayed by Andy Paris), be put to death. Another citizen suggests that Laramie is "about the well-educated and the ones that are not," a description that could just as well be applied to Berkeley, New Haven, or anywhere else where two major demographics are university students and impoverished locals.

Tectonic's message is that the players in this drama are the type of people that can be found anywhere--a lesson at once frightening and oddly soothing. The actors in The Laramie Project drive this point home by occasionally portraying themselves in addition to the people of Laramie. Kaufman does not perform, but is briefly represented on stage by the compelling actor John McAdams, who played with ferocity the relentless prosecutor in Gross Indecency. This frank acknowledgement of the writers and performers and their points of view helps lift the play from a dry docudrama to a community dialogue. (One wonders how differently, if at all, The Laramie Project was received by audiences in its premiere engagement in Denver as compared to the current production, which is playing in a theater just a few blocks beyond the largely gay Manhattan neighborhoods of Chelsea and Greenwich Village.)

In one brief scene, McAdams portrays an angry gay activist who implicates Laramie in Shepard's murder because of the town's culture of homophobia. It's possible to feel this man's anger and still be struck by the reaction of the townspeople to his attack: In a beautiful moment of stylized direction, the actors let out a barely audible sigh and look down in collective pain and exasperation. That moment resonates through nearly every word that follows.

The cast's obvious empathy for the people of Laramie does result in some oversimplifications, to be sure. Gay-positive voices outnumber negative ones by a factor of two to one, which seems dangerously misleading. The two Hispanic men who were attacked by McKinney and Henderson soon after Shepard's beating are not mentioned at all in this show, except for a vague reference to an altercation that sends McKinney to the emergency room at the precise moment when Shepard's body is carried in. And it's odd to hear so much from Doc (Stephen Belber), the folksy limo driver who befriended Shepard, but never learn that he was also McKinney's landlord and a close friend to both murderers.

Still, this is a deeply moving production, brilliantly designed by Brill and with surreal video and slide images by Martha Swetzoff that may haunt you forever. While the characterizations are rarely at the mesmerizing level of Anna Deavere Smith's solo work, all of the actors do affecting turns. Standouts include Andy Paris as a young university drama student whose moment of awakening comes from playing Prior Walter in Tony Kushner's Angels in America, and Kelli Simpkins as a lesbian friend of Shepard's and as the young man who finds Shepard tied to that infamous fence on the Wyoming prairie.

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