Review: The Laramie Project

The ninety minutes is up, and my journey to Laramie has felt altogether too brief. The curtain is closed, the inhabitants have disappeared, and all that is left of the town are two metal spikes jutting ominously out of the ground, bound together by a haphazard length of barbed wire. In many ways this solitary section of fence is Laramie: it is the only element of the set, the only real piece of the town in the play. It is a poignant and painful symbol of the town’s identity, and at the same time an imposing barrier between those who ‘know’ Laramie and those who do not.

The Laramie Project is an attempt to cross that fence. By delving into the lives of more than forty inhabitants, it is an attempt to allow the townsfolk to reclaim their community from the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay student who was kidnapped, beaten, tied to a fence on the outskirts of the Wyoming town and left to die. The murder sparked national outrage in 1998, and vigils and protests were held across the country. Five weeks later, and writer Moisés Kaufman decided to pay Laramie a visit and create the ultimate coming-to-terms chronicle. What starts as a depiction of life in the town is slowly consumed by Shepard’s story, and its own narrative is absorbed into the narrative of his death. We are thrown back over the other side of the fence.

The play is characterised by a series of tensions, and director Joe Jukes together with his cast does excellently to bring these to the fore. These are tensions between the remoteness of Laramie and its position as ‘shitstorm-central’; between the liberal student community – Laramie is a university town much like Cambridge – and the hardened, conservative townsfolk; between the shock of a hate crime and the pervasive undercurrents of intolerance. The minimal costume and set design, the sparing use of music and the simple lighting all ensure that it is the characters’ humanity which is drawn out over and above their prejudices. That said, crude and facile stereotyping of the church did let the production down somewhat; a more nuanced approach would have better complemented the mood of the play.

Of course, such identifiable characters could not be achieved without some quite brilliant acting. In particular, debutant Posey Mehta brought a real charm and warmth which was sometimes lacking elsewhere. Joe Spence was suitably macabre as murderers Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, and suitably spectral as Pastor Fred Phelps (of Westboro Baptist Church fame). It was clear, though, that some of the actors were not always entirely comfortable with the physical theatre elements of the play. As a result, some of it worked, and some of it didn’t: two scenes in particular – the opening and the scene in which the media descend on Laramie – stand out as being a bit more ‘Happy Hands Club’ than serious theatre.

But serious theatre this is, and it is successful at that. Juke’s production of The Laramie Project captures sublimely the basic essence of the play’s humanity. In doing so, it serves as a useful and poignant reminder that the world is a bigger place than Cambridge.

9/10

Photo Credits: Paul Christian and Ed Bryan

Do you agree? Let us know your thoughts in the comments below.

'The Laramie Project' runs at the Corpus Playroom at 7pm until Saturday 8th. Get your tickets online at https://www.corpusplayroom.com/whats-on/drama/the-laramie-project.aspx

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