Laramie Project delivers stunning ensemble work

I gave Justine Davidson, the theatre reviewer for the Whitehorse Star, a long hug at the end of The Laramie Project, the Guild Society/GALA play.

Both of us were near tears.

She said over my shoulder, “Does this mean it’s good when the journalists are crying?”

We weren’t the only ones moved.

But don’t let this make you think the play is a downer. It isn’t.

It’s mostly a fascinating study of 80 people learning to cope with sudden and abrupt change. The tragedy of Matthew Shepard’s murder happens before the play begins — so this is, in effect, the aftermath.

This is a community coming to terms with what they think about it — and finding themselves at the center of a media tornado. You find yourself rooting for them as they try to make it through.

The Laramie Project is an onion of a play. It is the murder of Matthew Shepard, wrapped in a town’s reactions and redemption, wrapped in the context of the Tectonic Theater travelling to Laramie and documenting and interviewing the people. Nearly every word you’ll hear came from the mouths of people in Laramie at the time — recorded by the theatre troupe.

This is what makes documentary theatre so compelling: that no single writer wrote these words, and therefore there is no single unifying mind guiding the play.

Who wrote the play?

Eighty people did.

Who are the actors?

There are participants — the 80 people — and our actors here represent those people. They also represent themselves, as interviewers. It’s a self-conscious choice on the part of Tectonic Theater, but it’s the only way to give the interviews context.

These “lines” were statements people really said, in the context of their interviews, in the wake of the murder. So they aren’t crafted. There’s not this feeling that they were revised to the point of poignancy. They were sudden. Reactionary. Angry. Defensive.

And that is incredibly cool to watch.

At first, the announcement of names preceding each statement is a bit jarring, unusual, but you get so used to it that it’s like you’re reading the subtitles of a movie.

To see them struggle for the right words, to see them say stupid things, and wise things, and true things — all from their points of view — that is a whole different kind of theatre.

It really questions the idea of author. And of “character”. And it challenges the actors to play real people.

The Laramie Project includes stellar performances by Yukon actors and actresses, under the direction of Clinton Walker. Asked to play about 10 people each, this troupe rose to the occasion. Using slight costume accessories, voices and mannerisms, you believe you are hearing multiple voices.

Walker makes a collection of short monologues into a captivating, constantly motion-filled discussion between actors and audience.

This is such an ensemble play, that I have a hard time singling out a performance, or a “person” (can’t call them characters) that was more compelling than others.

But some highlights:

I loved Mike Ivens’ opinionated limousine driver; Arlin McFarlane’s shocked ER attendant; Stephen Dunbar-Edge’s Catholic priest, concerned with how the town will be perceived; Jason Westover’s bartender who was one of the last people to see Matthew alive; Kayla Dewdney’s future activist; Carrie Anne Bruton’s cop; Mary Sloan’s mother of the accused; and Calvin Laveck’s exuberant theatre major.

And I will never forget Dewdney’s beautiful voice.

But their art really shines when they are asked to switch roles completely. Laveck couldn’t be more different playing murderer, Aaron McKinney, in a performance drained of compassion.

Ivens plays the Baptist minister, uncertain if he wants to talk to the actors coming to interview him.

Sloan as the scared mother of the cop; McFarlane embodying the anger of an email.

Everyone gets their turn showing off their acting chops in a very un-showy, very naturalistic, way.

Poor Dunbar-Edge plays Fred Phelps and my heart went out to him. I’m not sure what’s worse: playing Fred or playing the murderer — Who’s more at fault?

And that’s a point the play makes: Aaron and Russell are the accused, but Fred Phelps and others stand on stage stirring the misconceptions and hatred, just as indicted, but they walk.

The townspeople go through their trial by fire, and they come out more refined, knowing who they are. They are able to burn off some of the fear, some of their anger. But others just crystallize in their self-righteousness.

This is one of the most important plays I’ve seen in my life.

I can’t recommend this enough. These performances are stunning. This play is fascinating. The whole experience is moving and cathartic. And the message is important.

But I don’t know if my sense of urgent recommendation comes from my role as theatre reviewer, or because I’m gay and have seen these real people and their real fear, too, here in Whitehorse.

This play honestly discusses fear from every side, creating debate where no debate had ever been. It can open up that kind of debate here, too.

This is when the play is more important than the actors. But if the actors hadn’t nailed their performance, I wouldn’t trust them with this message.

Alas, this is the right play with the right actors — and so I want to send it in an envelope to everyone I know. But I can’t. You have to come see it, and urge people you know to come see it.

It’s great theatre. It’s important theatre. But ultimately, it’s real people, their real struggle, and a real triumph.

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