How is the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard that took place in Laramie, Wyoming in 1998 still relevant? A production of the 2000 play by Moises Kaufman “The Laramie Project,” produced and directed by Tisch juniors Frankie Gonzalez and Rachel Deutsch, respectively, provides context to the crime and connects it to the United States’ social current situation with LGBTQIA rights as well as general human rights.
“The Laramie Project” follows the members of the Tectonic Theater Project as they interview citizens of Laramie, Wyoming after the kidnapping, beating and murder of a young, gay man named Matthew Shepard to create a play about the town and its reaction to the tragedy.
The play begins with a projection of President Obama announcing the Supreme Court’s decision to legalize gay marriage, followed by clips and sound bytes of people at New York City’s Gay Pride Parade and political commentators discussing the legality of marriage equality, giving the audience a sense of progressiveness until the stage lights go up and the audience is immediately transported to a suburban Wyoming.
Video clips of the event and the trials are used throughout the play to represent the media coverage. At times, it is difficult to hear the sound on these video projections, but they are very effective in communicating the immense involvement of the press and how that presence affected the people of Laramie.
The performances by the actors were precise and passionate. Dozens of characters were portrayed, changing at the drop of a hat with only changes in voice or physicality to distinguish them, the distinction between characters was always committed and clear.
In one particularly moving scene a vigil is held to mourn Shepard’s death where the entire cast encompasses the stage with candles and sings a chillingly sweet a cappella version of “Somewhere Over the Rainbow.” The raw emotion of the cast was evident, creating a truly heartbreaking scene.
The set is minimal, featuring wooden chairs, a starry background and the fence to which Matthew Shepard was tied when he was beaten, tortured and eventually killed. The chairs functioned as moving set pieces, also serving to create a car, a courtroom and a bar. Other than the candles, the props were all mimed, including imaginary picket signs, microphones and angel wings. The pantomime was very believable and the minimalistic nature of the set and props drew further attention to the story itself.
The play ended with stars twinkling over the Wyoming set, leading to a projection of the same video of President Obama and pride parade, further chronicling the progress of the American society over the past two decades. Finally the projection flashes the word “hope” before it fades to black. The play’s central message of hope and optimism is beautiful, because it proves that Matthew Shepard’s death ignited a call to action of progress and that his story is just as important today as it was in 1998.
“The Laramie Project” is playing at the NYU Shop Theater, 721 Broadway, 2nd Floor until Friday, March 11.
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