Monday, March 4, 2019
Two decades ago, the vicious murder of college student Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming, forced a festering boil of homophobia to the surface of the American consciousness. Shepard’s brutal slaying and the ensuing criminal trial was documented in a variety of media, including The Laramie Project, a theater piece that gives cultural context to the murder. Created by the Tectonic Theater Project, a New York–based theater company, The Laramie Project uses interviews with Laramie locals to explore how the community struggles to accept the fact that their town, where “things like this don’t happen,” is a place where two men beat Shepard until he was mortally injured, tied him to a fence post, stole his shoes, and left him to die.
UCSB’s production of The Laramie Project, directed by Eric Jorgensen, is quietly complex. Bold colors and a clean set support focus on the performers, and, while everyone in the cast plays multiple characters, smooth character choreography eases the audience through transitions without awkwardness. It’s put together well, and the story is beautifully told. The talented cast exudes an authenticity with the material that highlights the continuing importance of fighting for inclusion and empathy across social divides.
UCSB’s production is poignant and deferential, but at almost three hours long, there are some dawdling moments. The first act is slowed by Tectonic’s over-insertion of themselves in the narrative as “characters.” The relationship between the two communities is crucial to the success of the project, but the story is about the people of Laramie, not about New Yorkers in Laramie. The pacing and intensity pick up speed as the play progresses, culminating in a bring-the-house-down monologue in which Shepard’s father, Dennis (Jason Bowe), addresses his son’s killer at his sentencing. The Laramie Project is an important piece of theater that requires finesse from the performers, and the UCSB department of theater delivers.