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Blood on the Prairie 

Laramie brings the town's inhabitants brilliantly to life

Wednesday, Jun 13 2001
Before The Laramie Project came to Berkeley, Leigh Fondakowski premiered a similar play in San Francisco called I Think I Like Girls, which was also documentary theater. "For some reason," I wrote at the time (Feb. 14), "this real-interview style only seems to work for politicized gender topics -- homosexuality, vaginas -- and in a few years maybe young theater companies will make fun of its home-grown earnestness." Documentary theater can be stylized and self-conscious, and lately, interviewing folks about their attitudes toward gay people and genitalia is the theatrical style du jour. This is how parodies are born. The Laramie Project, though, will make it hard for people to laugh.

The production opens with a description of Laramie as a close-knit, Middle American town -- rather like Holcomb, Kan., in Truman Capote's In Cold Blood -- where people are kind and the wind blows hard across the prairie. It was an unobtrusive place to live before Matthew Shepard was killed, but now "Laramie" stands for a hate crime. The members of New York's Tectonic Theater Project have interviewed a whole microcosm of residents about the town's identity crisis since the events of Oct. 6-7, 1998, and the interviews themselves (edited by Fondakowski) make up the text of the play.

What happened is this: Two young roofers lured Shepard away from a bar called the Fireside Lounge in Laramie and drove him in a truck down a deserted country road, stole his money (about $20), tied him to a buck-rail fence, and then flogged him with a pistol. A kid named Aaron Kreifels found Shepard 18 hours later, still alive but comatose. While Shepard clung to life in a hospital, the national media descended on Laramie like a plague; there were vigils in cities across the country (New York, San Francisco) and even a letter from the pope. Shepard died after five days, and if it hadn't been for a moving statement by his dad, the killers each would have faced a death sentence.

The Tectonic troupe approaches the murder through anecdotes from townspeople who don't understand how such a thing could have "happened here." Matt Galloway, the bartender; Doc O'Connor, the limo driver; Marge Murray, who's lived in Laramie all her life; Reggie Fluty, Marge's daughter, the cop who tried to revive Shepard on the scene; and two dozen others are all rendered in gesture and voice by the cast. The characters listed here, in particular, give long, vivid speeches, and it's when the script lets the townspeople talk for minutes on end that Laramie delivers its wound.

Stephen Belber plays the Fireside bartender as well as the limo driver who once drove Shepard to a Colorado gay bar. He does a masterful job of showing how even open-minded straights in Laramie have certain hang-ups about publicizing their opinions. "If there are eight men and one woman in a Wyoming bar," says O'Connor, explaining the logistics of sex in the country, "-- as is often the case -- you have to ask yourself: Who's gettin' what? [pause] You see what I'm sayin'?" Belber also brilliantly plays Andrew Gomez, a tough inmate who points out that murdering a gay kid is self-contradictory. Why would Shepard's attackers "kill a faggot, go to jail, and then either die or get fucked for the rest of their lives? ... I heard up in the max ward, they were tryin' to auction dem boys off."

Amy Resnick is also brilliant in most of her roles; in I Think I Like Girls she played a stunning range of characters, and she reprises the feat here. Her strongest speeches come in the shape of Aaron Kreifels, the insecure college freshman who found Shepard on the fence. Resnick has a naturally bright and open stage presence, but to play Kreifels she shoves her hands in her pockets, shuffles her feet, and delivers every "um" and "like" of his story with a semi-articulate rhythm. Kreifels at first thought Shepard's body was a scarecrow, until he saw real blond hair. Resnick's helpless, boyish voice as she retells the story is actually cathartic -- unforced and therefore heartbreaking.

The bits of The Laramie Project that don't work are the forced and self-conscious moments when company members appear as characters (some played by themselves, some not) to discuss how they felt in Laramie, during a particular interview or standing by the buck-rail fence. Glimpses of the Laramie process don't contribute to Shepard's story. Frankly, it's distracting; John McAdams even plays director Moisés Kaufman (who is Venezuelan) with a hint of an Irish accent. Documentary theater, for all its truth-telling claims, can be an invitation to self-indulgence, and Laramie catches fire only in those long speeches when nothing, apparently, stands between the audience and the melancholy town.


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