In 1998 Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old student attending the University of Wyoming in Laramie, was kidnapped, savagely beaten and left tied to a cattle fence outside the small west American town.
Through a dim, smoky haze two boys drag a third across the stage. Throwing him on a raised platform, one of the attackers pretends to punch the victim with simple, unconvincing strokes. It is a surreal moment, harrowing in its minimalism" there is no attempt to achieve a sense of reality, for the audience already knows - this is real, this happened.
In 1998 Matthew Shepard, a 21-year-old student attending the University of Wyoming in Laramie, was kidnapped, savagely beaten and left tied to a cattle fence outside the small west American town. Eighteen hours later a cyclist discovered his near-lifeless form and Matthew was taken to hospital. He never regained consciousness.
The horrific gay hate crime sent shockwaves across the United States. As the nation turned its eyes on Laramie, Laramie turned its eyes on itself. Where should blame be apportioned? To the attackers alone? Or was the whole town in some sense responsible?
Outside Laramie, others were asking the same questions, not only of the town, but of the entire country. A month after the attack, New York director and playwright, Moises Kaufman, took a team from his Tectonic Theater Project to Laramie in a bid to explore the nature of such crimes in the context of the complex social fabric of Laramie and the wider United States.
The Laramie Project is the product of over 400 interviews conducted by members of the Tectonic Theater Project with about 100 Laramie residents. Fragments of these interviews are interwoven with excerpts from the interviewers’ journal entries in a multi-layered portrayal of the townspeople and the events that followed the crime.
The amateur Epicentre Theatre Company’s mainly youthful cast, under the direction of Pat Sherwood, brings this at times harrowing play to life with, for the most part, a measured virtuosity that is redolent of high professionalism.
All thirteen actors are onstage throughout the play and share 60 roles between them, often making a breathtaking change of character in the space of an instant by means of the addition of a pair of glasses, or some other small item, and a new accent.
Most of the actors handled this whirlwind of shifting personalities and moods with aplomb the intrusion of a flat Australian drawl into the midst of multi-American accents a very occasional lapse.
A lukewarm beginning, in which the fragmentary nature of the script seemed to keep the audience at arm’s length, soon gave way to an intense, synthesised whole. The invasive sound of the smoke machine was another factor in the slow warm-up period: a distraction which thankfully lessened as the enthralling nature of the story took hold.
The distraction of the loud snow machine in the second half was less forgivable, however, starting up as it did during a particularly moving speech. The snow was an effective touch, but not nearly as vital to the ambience at that point as silence and the machine detracted from the otherwise professional tone of the production.
This production of The Laramie Project was at its best in the play’s quiet moments of terrible intimacy, when an actor seemed to be channelling the person they played. The tiny stage often seemed over-crowded (13 actors replaced the eight of the original New York production), adding to the sometimes bewildering effect.
When the spotlight remained on one or two people for an extended period, however, the small space drew the audience in. As the cyclist who discovered Matthew Shepard stands on the raised platform and describes in detail the terrible moment of discovery, a sense of the wide open plains of Wyoming finally becomes apparent and the audience is transported.
Moments of comedy were also handled with great finesse and timing. Despite the tragic theme of the play, many characters have more than a hint of caricature about them – the Mormon Church leader and the Baptist minister, for example, were hilariously recognisable.
The play’s greatest weakness is its overpopulation. Real people only seem real when we can explore the person behind the stereotype. Within the overwhelming montage of characters, certain people’s stories are developed so that we come to feel we know them well: the doctor who broke down on national television reading a statement from Matthew’s parents after his death" the deputy sheriff who was at risk of contracting HIV after her selfless attempts to save Matthew’s life at the scene of the crime.
It is in the few expanded stories that the depth of suffering and the pain of those unanswered and unanswerable questions truly comes to light. On a spare stage with a changing triptych backdrop of pictures ranging from the fence where Matthew hung to detailed close-ups of his face, dressed in white singlets and a few character indicators, the Epicentre Theatre Company has bravely explored those questions we must all, as human beings, be prepared to face.
The Laramie Project – 28th February
Epicentre Theatre Company
Zenith Theatre, Chatswood, Sydney
To March 14th
Sat 7th March 2pm
Sun 8th 5pm