Monday, July 21, 2003

‘Laramie’ plumbs
town’s conscience

Hate crimes, as H. Rap Brown might have said, are as American as apple pie. To wit:


At Manoa Valley Theatre, 2833 East Manoa Road.

7:30 p.m. Wednesdays and Thursdays

8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays

4 p.m. Sundays to Aug. 3.

Tickets $25. Call 988-6131.

Chinese-American Vincent Chin was beaten to death in Detroit by unemployed auto workers who believed he was Japanese and responsible for their economic problems.

James Byrd Jr., an African-American, was dragged behind a pick-up truck by three white men until his head and right arm were torn off.

Balbir Singh Sodhi was killed by a man who saw murder as appropriate revenge for the 9/11 attacks on America.

Then there was Matthew Shepard, a homosexual college student who was beaten, tied to a fence and left to die outside Laramie, Wyo., by two men who claimed they "only" intended to rob him until Shepard touched one of them.

The work comprises snippets of interviews and courtroom documents surrounding the murder and trial. The script explores events with such clinical detachment that it is left to viewers to decide whether Shepard was truly the victim of a premeditated hate crime.

Memories of Shepard's murder were raw when playwright Moisés Kaufman and members of Tectonic Theater Project arrived in Laramie from New York City a few weeks later to collect material for a play that would explore the effect of the murder and attending media circus on Laramie residents. The theater group returned to Laramie six times in 18 months and interviewed more than 200 people during the course of the trials.

The MVT production moves smoothly with nary a wasted word or boring moment. Director Dwight T. Martin's eight-person ensemble portrays a kaleidoscopic cast including Kaufman, theater project members, area residents and outsiders who had to be there.

Some views are predictable. There are religious leaders who believe God condemns homosexuals to Hell, townsfolk who profess to have nothing against gays "as long as they don't bother me," and some who resent the scrutiny of Laramie when violence exists elsewhere. Some feel gay activists are exploiting Shepard's death to advance their agenda. One resident wonders where the outsiders were when a local highway patrolman was killed earlier. Did that man's life count for less than Shepard's?

BUT THE SCRUTINY is less about one death than the treatment of gays. One man speaks of moving to Colorado to safely socialize with other gays. An openly lesbian college professor says other lesbians on University of Wyoming's campus are afraid to be seen talking to her.

The circumstances of Shepard's death -- he remained tied to the fence for 18 hours before being found, then clung to life for days afterward -- inspired some of Laramie's clandestine gay community to step forward. Some heterosexuals speak of resentment over having their views of right and wrong challenged by people they consider "immoral."

A number of the off-campus heterosexuals come across as bumpkins or bigots. Veteran actor/director Jerry Tracy emerges first among equals in the MVT ensemble as he portrays most of them. This is not a comedy, but Tracy drew hearty laughter from the opening-night audience.

Kyra Poppler stands out as a Laramie lesbian who emerges from the turmoil as a committed gay rights activist. Matthew Johnson is convincing playing such diverse characters as a fast-talking bartender, a straight university student for whom reading an "Angels in America" scene is an act of courage, a prison inmate, and a stupefied young man facing life in prison who is barely able to comprehend his fate.

Jim K. Aina, Derek Calibre, Melanie Garcia, Alexandra Horn and Melinda Maltby share credit with Tracy, Johnson and Poppler for the production's success. Outstanding work by the tech crew completes the picture.

A stark multi-level set designed by Kelly Berry and Dan Gelbman suggests Wyoming's expansiveness and isolation. Cathie Anderson's lighting conjures the area's raw wild beauty and subtly embellishes one of the final monologues, while Jason Taglianetti's (sound design) work adds depth to several scenes.

Costume designer Athena Espania juggles numerous cast changes by adding simple accouterments to help separate characters.

In spite of its subjects, there is little sense that "The Laramie Project" is intended to advance any agenda beyond the tragedy of two men killing another. Would we be expected to mourn Shepard any less if he'd been a straight man murdered by two heterosexuals?

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