Review: THE LARAMIE PROJECT at AstonRep Theatre Company

Review: THE LARAMIE PROJECT at AstonRep Theatre Company

The ensemble of AstonRep Theatre Company’s production of THE LARAMIE PROJECT, directed by Derek Bertelsen. Photo by Emily Schwartz.

By Elizabeth Ellis

I recently met up with a friend for a few beverages and some deep conversation. After we dispensed with the general niceties, we got serious, discussing the state of the nation, our increased senses of uneasiness and foreboding, and plans of action. My friend gazed into her beer, and sighed. “I think the only people who are feeling great about everything that’s going on right now are old rich straight white men.” The palpable feeling that most of us somehow qualify as “less than” and “other” simply because of who we are, creates a frustration that we must use to resist, and this is the perfect and necessary time to do so. AstonRep has chosen the superb play THE LARAMIE PROJECT to perform during Pride Month. This stellar production, with exquisite and sensitive direction from Derek Bertelsen, and twelve terrifically talented actors, tells this powerful and heartbreaking true story with great grace, compassion, and love.

Playwright Moises Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project visited Laramie multiple times, and conducted hundreds of interviews with the residents of Laramie who were involved, even tangentially, with the murder. Kaufman wove these personal accounts into a narrative, designed so that each of the actors portrayed multiple roles. The backstory: Matthew Shepard was a 21-year-old gay man and a student at the University of Wyoming. On the night of October 6, 1998, Matthew met two men, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, at a bar in Laramie. McKinney and Henderson offered to give Matthew a ride home but instead drove him to a remote area, where they beat and tortured him, tied him to a fence, and left him for dead. Eighteen hours later, a bicyclist discovered Matthew, originally mistaking him for a scarecrow. He was taken to a Laramie hospital before being transferred to an advanced trauma center in Fort Collins, Colorado, where he died of his injuries on October 12. His murder focused national and international attention on hate crimes. In 2007, the Matthew Shepard Act was introduced into Congress, though it did not become law until 2009 under President Obama.

On opening night at Raven Theatre, about ten minutes into the performance, a stage dimmer exploded in a shower of sparks. The Aston Rep and Raven Theatre staff stopped the show, alerted the fire department, and calmly coordinated a smooth exit of the audience from the theatre. Once the firefighters declared everything safe, we were ushered back into the theatre. The show easily picked up where it had left off, with applause and support, and an increased sense of community from all in attendance.

Given the number of roles they had to fill, the entire cast gives consistently beautiful and varied performances, with several wonderful standouts: Matthew Harris plays Jedadiah Schultz, a college student whose choice to audition with and eventually perform in a U of W production of Angels in America causes a rupture with his homophobic parents. Amy Kasper and Sara Pavlak McGuire are a sweet and funny mother and daughter pair, with McGuire as Reggie Fluty, the police officer and first responder to Matthew who unknowingly exposes herself to HIV. When Kasper spoke the line “I hope she doesn’t go before me,” many in the audience were brought to tears. Kasper also portrays a compassionate Unitarian minister. Alexandra Bennett does great work as a local Baptist clergyperson, as well as the hospital administrator who remonstrates herself after her emotions overtake her during a news conference. One of the most powerful performances comes from Rob Frankel playing Matthew’s father. He reads a statement to the court, setting aside his rage and desire for retribution and instead asks for life imprisonment instead of death for the unrepentant McKinney. Frankel’s stoic grace and depth of humanity make this the most moving moment in the entire show.

Director Derek Bertelsen makes the wise choice to make all other elements of the show, save for the script, as spare as possible. This allows for the power of the words and the emotionally wrenching story to make an enormous impact. Few props and costumes distract from the performances, and the actors sit on the sides of the stage for the duration of the show, making their entrances and exits flow easily and seamlessly onto Jeremiah Barr’s simple yet gorgeous set: a raked platform covered in green, a few plants, the cloud-studded and eventually starlit Wyoming sky. Samantha Barr’s lighting pairs with the set beautifully. Bertelsen harnesses the depth of the actors’ talent by having several play guitar and sing John Denver songs. This simple and beautiful choice offers a perfect counterpoint to the tragedy unfolding onstage.

The hate crime perpetrated against Matthew doesn’t feel as though it happened nearly 20 years ago; in this social and political climate, and despite multiple legislative acts, it seems like it’s just as possible now. This terrible story told in this magnificent production will stay in your heart and spur you to action.

THE LARAMIE PROJECT runs through July 8th. For more information visit astonrep.com.

About author

Elizabeth Ellis

Elizabeth is an actor, playwright, musician, and a graduate of De Paul University. She studied theatre and improvisation at the Second City Training Center, the Actors’ Center, and at the Royal National Theatre Studio in London. Elizabeth has performed with the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, Tympanic Theatre, Congo Square Theatre, Second City's Children's Theatre, Stage Left Theatre, Bailiwick Arts Center, and London's Canal Cafe Theatre. Six of her plays have been chosen as part of the Abbie Hoffman and the Around the Coyote festivals.

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