Sunday, March 8 at 7 p.m. in Collins Auditorium
Seventeen years after the death of Matthew Shepard, The Laramie Project, a play about the aftermath of his murder, is still a stirring and necessary piece of theater. TOP makes that abundantly clear in their powerful production, which shows they can pull off modern drama just as well as ancient tragedy.
Matthew Shepard was a gay student at the University of Wyoming who was beaten, tortured and tied to a fence post by two men he had encountered at a bar. Soon after his death, members of the Tectonic Theatre Project went to Laramie, Wyoming to interview the townspeople about the heinous crime.
Jane Skapek and David Schillinger direct the show with simplicity and grace. This spartan style makes the play’s one big setpiece, a protest, that much more emotionally affecting.
Fittingly for a play that solely involves people talking, the show has been designed very simply. The set consists of nine chairs in which the actors sit; their costumes are hung on the chair backs, which make quick changes easy. The chairs also serve dual purposes (i.e. as a judge’s bench), and combined with a few simple props they provide all the necessary production design.
The lighting heightens the show’s emotional intensity — it is muted at certain key moments, blazing during scenes of media frenzy and otherwise subtly deployed throughout much of the play.
An ensemble cast of nine actors plays 57 roles in the show. Even with the play’s communal nature several performances stand out.
Michael Brown has the most affecting roles: Matt Galloway, the bartender who wishes he could have done more to save Matthew’s life, and Jedediah Schultz, a college student inspired by Angels in America. He also plays an anti-gay Baptist minister. In running the gamut from love to hate, he shows impressive range.
Max Beyer embodies both good-hearted people like Laramie limo driver Doc O’Connor and bigots like Conrad Miller and Rev. Fred Phelps with intensity and commitment.
In contrast, Ricky Bordelon is a caring liturgical presence as Father Roger Schmidt. His monologue urging the theatre troupe to “say it right, say it correct” powerfully shows his priestly training giving way to human caring.
As the hospital spokesperson who breaks down announcing Matthew Shepard’s death, Jackie Gawne similarly shows how personal beliefs are shattered in the face of unending grief. Her scene is brief, but lasting thanks to its emotionally raw delivery.
The play’s most heart-rending scene, however, is when Judy Shepherd gives a statement at the trial of her son’s murderer. Alexis Jimenez knocks this speech out of the park. Audience members not fighting back tears should check their pulses.
The Laramie Project, which premiered in 2000, marks a departure for TOP, which normally tackles centuries-old Shakespearean drama. This production proves that they are just as good at performing contemporary pieces.
It is heartening that The Laramie Project,,which like Rent deals with so-called “mature” themes, can be presented on Fordham’s campus without protest from students or administrators.This show is a learning experience for actors and audience members, and should play to a packed house tomorrow night.
Disclaimer: Ricky Bordelon is this critic’s roommate.