Welcome to Middle America and in particular Laramie, Wyoming. It’s a town where two guys defend their hate crime as being gay panic. In other words they are justified in bashing Mathew Shephard, a young gay man, and leaving him for 18 hours in the middle of nowhere tied to a fence.
Why? Because, according to one of them, they reacted to Mathew being gay and, in a state of panic, horrifically assaulted him and left him to die.
The Laramie Project is confronting and disturbing. Gavin Edwards (as the local police sergeant) hopes the perpetrators are not from Laramie: “We hoped we would not breed children that would commit such a crime,” he says. The harsh reality is that Laramie did breed children that committed such a horrendous crime.
The play was created from interviews by members of a New York theatre project over several visits to Laramie. They conducted and recorded dozens of face-to-face interviews with the local residents. The script consists of direct quotes from these interviews.
The play is disturbing but not overly so. It is carefully scripted to avoid sensationalism and over sentimentalism. There are touches of humor and there is a brilliant cast that executes it.
All the actors portray multiple characters from the town. Edwards is extremely convincing and consistent. He delivers accents and performances that are believable and strong. He switches from police sergeant to medical doctor and to his eight other characters without a fault.
Gabby Denning-Cotter came very late to the play. She stepped into her role the week the play opened. Despite having notebook in hand for the occasional prompt she too switches between characters with ease and delivers an impressive array of characters.
William McBride’s exceptional performances are as Jonas and Murdoch. And Justin Woo’s characters are a joy to watch. Unfortunately, the decision for one character to keep his broad Australian accent is not a wise one as the audience keeps being verbally transported from Wyoming to the Gold Coast.
The Laramie Project is an adventurous project by Underground Productions. Kat Henry’s direction produces a work that is captivating and intense. The minimalist set works with performers working hard to produce effect and scene. It’s a job that they do well despite the occasional distraction by changing props or clothing.
The biggest criticism is of the venue. The Cement box was created underneath the Schonell Theatre at the University of Queensland when the theatre was divided into three venues. Having two pieces of live theatre performing in the same building on the one night is a great testimony to the renaissance of live theatre at UQ.
However, the stomping and joyous tunes from Grease drifting down from the main Schonell Theatre during an emotive Laramie speech is entirely inappropriate and a travesty to this intense work. Let’s hope the proposed acoustic soundproofing that is part of the Schonell redevelopment solves this.
But, hats off to the Laramie cast for pushing through despite such distractions. Overall, they pull off an incredibly difficult work with conviction and professionalism. They are focused and meet the complicated task of each handling half dozen or more roles. The physical demands and emotional strain of such a feat rarely show.