Art & Design
Posted by Lou Sanz
06. May, 2011
It is not an easy story to forget; the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard, and nor should it be forgotten. But then again, as the Tectonic Theatre Project discovered upon their return ten years later to Laramie, Wyoming, nor should the act, which put Laramie on the map, become the thing of folklore, rumour and urban legend either.
In 1998 Mathew Shepard, a gay college student from the University of Wyoming, was lured to his death by Aaron Henderson and Russel McKinley. They beat him to death, tied him to a fence and left him there to die. He was found eighteen hours later by a cyclist, who at first mistook him for a scarecrow, and finally died in hospital six days later. The perpetrators of this heinous crime at the time of their trial pleaded not guilty by reason of the gay panic defense. Ten years on some of the townsfolk of Wyoming are now convinced it was a just a robbery gone bad and not a crime of hate, the implications of which are far more reaching than just Laramie, Wyoming.
I was lucky enough almost ten years ago to see a staging of the documentary style play The Laramie Project created by the Tectonic Theater Project and helmed by Moises Kaufman in Sydney. Shortly after I saw the film of the same name written by Kaufman, and both profoundly moved me. The Laramie Project, 10 Years On, currently being staged by actors theatre Red Stitch, was no different in its effect.
Inspired staging, understated, well crafted acting (from the ensemble of nine) and an understanding and direction (by Gary Abrahams) of superb dramatic narrative aside (yes, I’m lumping it all to one side, but just for a moment), the story of Matthew Shepard’s death is compelling enough. Expect a sensationalised retelling, gore theatre if you will, but while the first play explored the crime, the person and to a lesser extent the perpetrators (they didn’t have access to the assailants for the first play), this ‘revisit’ explores the aftermath, the brand of Matthew Shepard as opposed to the person, and whether or not a hate crime could or should be enough of a catalyst to action social change. Matthew Shepard the person is in fact the most ambiguous of all the characters in the play, because he is the only character without a voice and it is that absence that makes this adaptation of the story so engaging.
The ensemble cast took on a mix of characters drawn from real life conversations, journal entries and source material surrounding the crime to astounding affect with standout performances from David Whiteley as Moises Kaufman, Terry Camilleri, Paul Ashcroft and Emily Thomas. But it is the showdown between one of the murderers (played by Brett Ludeman) and Moises Kaufamn that makes for one of the most chilling moments of theatre I’ve seen in a long time. The claustrophobic set design only exacerbates to good effect the stifled feeling that many of the townsfolk feel even ten years after the event.
It’s easy to walk away from this play and think ‘well that’s Midwest American for you, not exactly big on the old civil rights”, but you only have to open a local newspaper to know that we still don’t believe same sex marriage is a civil right in this country or how in the middle of Trafalgar Square last year a man was stamped to death by teenagers because he was a homosexual. It might be harder, but after seeing this Red Stitch production you must walk away with a sense that Laramie Wyoming is just a microcosmic reflection of an ongoing problem, everywhere.
An absolute must see.
The Laramie Project, 10 Years On is playing now until Saturday, 28 May
Red Stitch Theatre, Rear 2 Chapel St, St. Kilda
Bookings: (03) 9533 8083 or www.redstitch.net