Our town?

The Laramie Project

After the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard, the media swarms the residents of a small Wyoming town, in <i>The Laramie Project</i>.

After the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard, the media swarms the residents of a small Wyoming town, in The Laramie Project.

Rated 3.0

Laramie here. Laramie there. Laramie, Laramie everywhere.

We’re referring to the oft-produced script by Moisés Kaufman, The Laramie Project, currently being staged by the UC Davis department of theater and dance. It’s already been staged locally by four different groups, and we’re told American River College plans to do it come spring. (We won’t discuss the 90-minute video version, which is barely half the length of the play.)

What’s all the fuss about? For those who haven’t seen it, The Laramie Project is a broad-angle, composite portrait of a small university town in a Rocky Mountain state. It deals with people’s feelings and actions following the 1999 beating death of student Matthew Shepard, who was singled out because he was gay.

The script is constructed from dozens of interviews with Laramie, Wyo., residents conducted by Kaufman and members of his New York theater company, talking about events before and after Shepard’s death. The play asks “Why?” and “Why here?” The larger question, never stated, is “Could it happen in our town, too?” The answer is yes, which is why so many groups want to stage the play.

In addition to being topical, Laramie is an ideal vehicle for big groups. You can work in many actors, each taking several small roles. And it’s very much an ensemble show. No single character stands out as the lead.

In this UC Davis production, director Peter Lichtenfels takes advantage of the glass wall on the north side of the Mondavi Center’s Studio Theatre. Some of the action is inside; some is outside. This technique is particularly effective when Lichtenfels stages the sentencing of Shepard’s killers on the inside while a right-wing pastor yells anti-gay slogans through a bullhorn on the outside.

Lichtenfels also works in lots of group action as commentary. At one point, the citizens of Laramie line up, hand in hand, together. At another, they hop from chair to chair to make sure an openly lesbian character (who’s talking about the town) never gets a seat. These are interesting choices, sometimes quite dramatic.

But, overall, we’re more partial to the low-key, understated interpretation director Frank Condon gave his River Stage production last year. That production almost turned each member of the audience into a Laramie resident. Condon’s approach gave the impact of Kaufman’s script—which is still moving in this UC Davis production—an even more personal connection. This production also is hampered by glitches with the sound gear worn by the cast; some of them sound “fuzzy” and blur a few critical lines.