Saturday, Feb. 26, 2011

Marquette University's Laramie Project

Further thoughts on Moises Kaufman's drama after its latest local staging.

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Moises Kaufman’s The Laramie Project is likely destined to be one of the great classics of drama to come out of the American theatre in the past twenty years. The reasons for this go well beyond the cultural significance of a play about the brutal murder of a young gay man in the late 1990’s.

In a series of monologues taken directly from residents of the small town where the murder took place, The Laramie Project vividly portrays the convoluted complexity of darkness in the human soul. Simply by presenting the diverse perspectives of various people in a small town in Wyoming, the drama shows depth beyond laughably simple concepts like good and evil in a way that would be very difficult for a single author to render.

Marquette University’s staging of the drama is the latest in a series of Milwaukee-area productions to make it to the stage in recent years. A cast of fifteen plays an immense number of characters. Individual actors play drastically different characters, often with little or no time to switch gears mentally. On the surface of it, Marquette University Theatre Artistic Director Debra Krajec does an admirable job of orchestrating it all without losing momentum. I could’ve sworn I saw one actor bi-locate from one side of the stage to the other at one point.

The impressive physical efficiency of the production extends into every other area. As the audience files in before the show, we are looking at a profoundly brown set. This is the base neutral for a show that draws quite a bit of its atmosphere from slides projected onto one of three large screens overhead. On a couple of different occasions, a video camera is patched-in to one of the screens to give a larger-than-life video feel to some of the quotes taken from press conferences.

The cast consists of a generous mix of different students. Seasoned 12-show veteran Joe Picchetti holds a sophisticated stage presence in a number of roles including Moises Kaufman and in a particularly moving speech, Matthew Shepard’s father Dennis. Alexandra Bonesho makes an impact in a couple of different roles, most notably a charismatic, high-energy turn as Romaine Patterson—a high school friend of Matthew’s who goes on to become a gay rights activist. Harry Loeffler-Bell lends a great deal of charm to a couple of roles as well, including the iconoclastic local character Doc O’Connor.

It’s interesting seeing this show after having so recently seen Youngblood Theatre’s end of The Laramie Project—Ten Years Later. That follow-up stage reading featured a script that included excerpts from direct interviews with the two men who killed Shepard. That reading included a performance by Michael Cotey as both convicted killers that still sits pretty prominently in my memory. The dynamic between the two men was really interesting to watch as seen through a single actor, who really had a handle on the complexity of their personalities. Seeing the two men portrayed here felt a bit weak in comparison.

To be fair, the limited access the Kaufman and company had to the two killers prior to The Laramie Project didn’t allow those characters much depth when compared to Ten Years Later. Perhaps a carefully crafted two-act, three-hour script that fused both plays together would end up being a lot more satisfying. There’s no question that the two dramas would work well paired-up and performed in a rotating rep arrangement. It’d be kind of emotionally exhausting to sit through both of them in the same weekend, though. As familiar as I’ve come to be with the shows, I stilled teared-up at moments in my third trip into a staged version of Laramie, Wyoming.

Marquette University’s production of The Laramie Project runs through March 6th at the Helfaer Theatre. For reservations, call 414-288-7504.

In addition to the show, there are a couple of other related events at Marquette. On Sunday, March 6th at 7:30pm, there will be a staged reading of Kaufman’s The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later. The script, which debuted locally in a staged reading with Yonugblood Theatre, follows Kaufman and company back to Laramie where they get a chance to talk directly with the two men convicted of killing Shepard, among others. The March 6th reading takes place at the Helfaer Theatre just a few hours after Marquette’s final performance of The Laramie Project.

Also, Matthew Shepard’s mother Judy will be speaking at Marquette on Tuesday, March 1st at 7pm in the Weasler Auditorium on 1442 West Wisconsin Avenue. A Q&A will follow. Shepard will also be signing copies of her 2009 book The Meaning of Matthew: My Son's Murder in Laramie, and a World Transformed.

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