24 March, 2005

munkey's eye view: THE LARAMIE PROJECT


Hate is not a Laramie virtue ~ Hate is a symptom of the World

In late 1998, 21 year-old gay college student Matthew Sheppard was brutally bashed and left to die, tied to a fence just outside the town of Laramie Wyoming in the southern USA. The media coverage and public response led the case to be one of the first high-profile "gay hate crimes". His attackers were two other young men from the same town - a community of just over 20,000 where everybody knows everybody. In the year following, members of a New York theatre troupe, led by Moises Kauffman, visited Laramie several times to witness the aftermath of Matthew's murder, conducting hundreds of interviews with people from all walks of life within the town. These interviews, along with diary entries by the actors and transcripts of real media statements, are woven together to create a varied, unbiased, highly emotional and deeply thought-provoking portrait of an everyday community in the wake of an eye-opening tragedy.

The original US production was performed by the actors who conducted the interviews, with costumes, sets etc adding to re-create the story with vividness and no-doubt deeply personal resonance. However, it's easy to see how a production from a company with no immediate connection to the town or the case, might fail to have the impact of the original. But this production at Chapel-Off-Chapel by Melbourne group The Act-O-Matic 3000, using just eight actors in multiple roles, simple skyscape backdrop, plain-clothes costume and eight chairs, brings the play to life with gripping authenticity and devastating immediacy.

The performers, with not a weak-link in sight, are nothing short of brilliant. Each portrays at least five characters without the need of costume or make-up, merely relying on subtlety of mannerism, voice and facial expression to create the broad spectrum of people within the community. The direction by Chris Baldock is understated yet captivating; it's not often you see a play that employs no scene changes, props or costumes, and yet is consistently visually and spacially dynamic. The use of music by american composer Thomas Newman - known for such scores as American Beauty and Six Feet Under - blends perfectly with the show's atmosphere, evoking the tragi-comic feeling of the hidden potential for harmony and beauty, which blossoms just beneath the surface of even the most horrific of human situations.

The Laramie Project's greatest strength comes in its resistance to "taking a stance". The play presents the full scope of opinions, views and reactions to the Sheppard murder, defying the cliché of the conservative redneck town, without falling into the opposite trap of over-sympathising or turning the crime into a random event isolated from the rest of the community. As town leaders pipe up against prejudice and encourage their locals to "show the world that Laramie is NOT like this!", a female Islamic college student - who herself has borne the brunt of ignorance and bigotry - cannot help but point out that the crime happened in Laramie; their town IS like this, because this happened here. And herein lies one of the play's many important lessons. To deny that bigotry, hate and violence exist in our world, or to loudly proclaim one's own tolerance, does not help the problem. It is only by acknowledging and addressing the prejudice that we can hope to combat it in any meaningful way.

The Act-O-Matic 3000's production of The Laramie Project actively examines the mechanics of hate - not just in Laramie Wyoming but in every society - including, of course, that in which it is performed. Although Melbourne may pride itself on being a multicultural, idealogically diverse and queer-friendly society, you need only listen to the conversation of an average working male after a few beers - or attend a suburban public high-school for a couple of years - to see that, while we may lack the Christian ultra-conservatism of the American South, prejudice in all its ugly forms is alive and thirving in our very midst.

In its analysis of the reactions by religious leaders (the local Catholic minister immediately held a vigil for the gay, HIV-positive Sheppard, while the local Baptist expressed his hopes that Matthew had time to repent and regret his lifestyle while lying in agony), the lack of action by political leaders (once the perpetrators had been sentenced, the issue disappeared and no hate-crime or anti-discrimination legislation has ever been passed in the State of Wyoming) and the shock and disgust of Matt's peers, the play shows that the issue of homophobia - or any kind of ingrained bigotry - is not a simple one.

Certainly more questions are asked than answered, more issues are raised than resolved. But - while never likely to hit the bright lights of Broadway - numerous college, school and amateur productions have made The Laramie Project the most performed play in the USA today. And that many people being exposed to its entertaining, engaging and above all non-didactic appraisal of such complicated social issues, can only lead to broader dialogue and more open thought... which is surely a very very positive thing.

(Unfortunately I saw The Laramie Project near the end of its run and it has now closed... but I believe the production is preparing a return season, due to the overwhelming public response to the show. Stay tuned.)

5 (out of 5)




Anonymous Anonymous said...

There is a production of The Laramie Project on in Geelong at the moment - running until May 13 - if you feel like a run down the freeway! Tickets are $18 from Geelong Performing Arts Centre 5225 1200 and the play is on at the Woodbin Theatre, 15 Coronation street, Geelong West

May 03, 2006 5:15 pm  

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