Friday, October 26, 2018

Provincetown Theater's "The Laramie Project" Sparkles

By Greg Waagner

From the moment theatre patrons tender their tickets and enter the performance space for the Provincetown Theater’s production of The Laramie Project, they are transported from the cheek-by-jowl nature of life on the Outer Cape to the windy sparseness of the high prairie isolation of Laramie, Wyoming, home of Matthew Shepard’s short life and infamous death.  In-the-round seating is designated by a series of fenced allees with lamp posts, while other lamps, a few benches and boxes designate the perimeter of the stage area.  As the show begins, the company enters together and then recede into the allees, as this documentary play gets underway.

Laramie, we learn, owes its prairie isolation to its origin as a tent city where the transcontinental railroad crossed the Laramie River, and later, as a brick and mortar city where the railroad was serviced.  A number or railroad businesses thrived there and others developed due to the proximity to rail shipping.  Eventually the University of Wyoming found a home there, followed by a community college and the city with its population of over 26,000 became known for its scenic locales, educational and employment opportunities and low taxes.   And then in October 1998, openly-gay college student Matthew Shepard was killed and the Gem City of the Plains became known for something else entirely.

The Laramie Project represents the efforts of playwright Moises Kaufman and the company of the Tectonic Theater Project, who (through the University of Wyoming theater department) visited the prairie city a month after Matthew’s death, in search of the real story hidden beneath the controversy of the event and the one-note stridency of media coverage, hoping to commemorate the story of Matthew’s death while helping the residents of that torn city to find some peace and closure. 

The resulting play draws its story from hundreds of interviews TTP members conducted in Laramie, as well as news accounts and company members’ journal entries.  As the eight cast members enter and recede through those fenced allees, they make subtle changes to costume, posture and accent, becoming over sixty different characters as they spin the events of that fateful evening and its aftermath into the light.

In many ways the people of Laramie represented national feelings about LGBTQ people at the time of Matthew’s death.  The Pride movement born in the late sixties had spread enlightenment to many parts of the nation and some acceptance at a distance was beginning to grow.  Reaction to this new openness, and, eventually, fears born of the AIDS crisis fueled rebound in more conservative corners.  “Fag Bashing” was common enough to have its own name.  A memorial display in the lobby of the Provincetown Theater reminds patrons that many others have been attacked and/or killed for their sexuality, both before and after the events in Laramie.  

As we meet various members of the Laramie community, that national stage is reflected locally.  It’s no wonder that many more stereotypical gays might move away from Laramie and why other gays and lesbians who stayed were often wary of the danger of being seen in the company of those who were out.   “Hate is not a Laramie value,” some said, “We aren’t that kind of place”, while others opined about Matthew’s HIV status and suggested he was flaunting his gayness and maybe “asking for it.”  Local religious leaders alternately held vigils or made strong statements about what constituted acceptable families.  It wasn’t that they condoned that sort of violence, but they didn’t condone that sort of lifestyle either and generally hoped the whole situation would just go away. 

As cast members of the Laramie Project embody various characters and begin to fill in the mosaic of Matthew’s story, their entrances and exits from all corners of the room set up a sort of spinning wheel momentum as the tale unspools before us.   We meet the bartender who served both the victim and the assailants that night, the DJ who saw them leave, the cyclist who found Matthew 18 hours later, the sheriff’s deputy who suffered HIV exposure whilst freeing Matthew from the rope which held him fast to the fence post.  Cast members supplement prerecorded sounds of prairie wind and distant railroad hum, with live ambient sound of crowd noise, media cameras and other scene-setting, sometimes unsettling effects.  Benches become bars and churches and hospitals and courtrooms and living rooms.  Lamps become vigil candles and video cameras  As we barrel toward intermission, the blare of an approaching diesel locomotive seems to represent the firestorm of controversy and change Laramie will endure in response to Matthew’s death.

Vigils were held in Laramie, Denver and everywhere.  Los Angeles saw 5000 protesters, in New York civil disobedience sparked many arrests.  A national call for hate crimes legislation rose up, met with protests from others suggesting that all murders were “hate crimes”, why should this be special?  A contingent of marchers remembering Matthew more than doubled a local homecoming parade size, leading one Laramie gay man to express his guilty gratitude to Matthew for shining a light on a hidden community.

Act Two brings Matthew’s death, the vigils, and subsequent trial.  We meet the doctor who treated both Shepard and one of this assailants, who was touched by the tender age of each and who was later accused of “crying for faggots” at a presser announcing Matthew’s passing.  We learn of Matthew’s friends who designed large-winged angel costumes to wear outside the funeral to conceal the venomous hatred of Fred Phelps and his Westboro Baptist protesters from the Shepard family.  A college theater student finds his attitude and those of his family changing toward gay people.  
Eventually, Matthew’s death would become the catalyst for a national Hate Crimes Prevention act.  So isn’t that the story over and done with?  What more is there to say?  After all, twenty years later, many Americans are more accepting in their views of the LGBTQ+ community.  Same sex marriage is now the law of the land.  But at least twenty states still do not consider attacks on LGBTQ+ people to be hate crimes.  As recently as last year, Mike Pompeo and the Republican alternative facts machine have suggested that Matthew’s death was not a hate crime but a bisexual drug partnership gone wrong.  The need to tell the story of Matthew and all that transpired in Laramie goes on.   History must be learned and retold or it is forgotten and needlessly repeated.

Provincetown Theatre’s 20th Anniversary production of The Laramie Project is directed by Leigh Fondakowski    a member of Tectonic Theater Project who served as head writer for the play (as well as the HBO film adaptation) -  who is pleased to have brought this production to our amazing Provincetown, a place Matthew would’ve loved.   The Outer Cape spirit is well-represented by the cast – John Dennis Anderson, Andrew Clemons, Paul E. Halley, Tamora Israel, Fermin Rojas, Julia Salinger, Sam Sewell, Tom Sharp, Myra Slotnick and Anne Stott – who are dynamic in their embodiment of so many different characters.

As the performance nears its conclusion, Dennis Shepard asks the court to consider a life sentence over the death penalty for one of his attackers, knowing it would be what his son would have wanted.  Shepard wonders what his son (who died 50 days away from his 22nd birthday) might’ve become if he’d lived and he contemplates the sparkling Laramie sky his son loved, which would’ve been among Matthew’s sights as he waited to be rescued. 

With Matthew in their hearts, the cast and crew of The Laramie Project sparkle like that Laramie sky, illuminating each of the stories which come together to create the shining constellation of Matthew Shepard, keeping his story alive for future generations.

The Provincetown Theater’s 20th Anniversary production of “The Laramie Project” is presented on Thursday, Friday and Saturday evenings at 7 pm and on Sunday afternoons at 2 pm, through October 28th.  Tickets are $30/$35.  After the Sunday matinees, a talk-back discussion is hosted in the theatre with the cast, crew and is free to the public. 

Tickets may be purchased online at, or at the Downtown Box Office at 230 Commercial Street.  (508) 487-7487.

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