By: Anthony Danilov
Bergenstages kicked off its 50th anniversary with its production of The Laramie Project, a bold and important choice that’s bound to make viewers uncomfortable and retrospective. It’s been 25 years since the murder of Matthew Shepard in the town of Laramie, Wyoming and the issues of homophobia and hate crimes are still as relevant as ever.
Last Friday, I had the pleasure of viewing Bregenstages’s production of The Laramie Project directed by none other than Dr. Leigh Jonaitis. Little did I know that I would find myself sobbing by the end of the second act and leaving the theater emotionally drained.
About three weeks earlier, I had had the chance to sit down with the diverse ensemble of actors during one of their dress rehearsals and pick their minds on how college students could even begin to attempt to play the people of Laramie – a community that claimed to live by the phrase “live and let live” but very clearly didn’t. “Nobody in Laramie thought that it could happen there,” one of the actors explained to me. “These people never thought that their town would make it big, let alone like this.”
As we go through the interviews depicted in the play, we start to sense a theme of outsiders vs insiders. Both perpetrators, Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, were born and raised in Laramie; everybody knew who they were and some of the residents were even good friends with the two. Shepard also had friends whose accounts we hear from but had moved to Laramie as a student at the University of Wyoming. Add the fact that Shepard identified as homosexual, it was disheartening to see how many people interviewed claimed that he was probably “forcing” his lifestyle on the boys who attacked him, that he was “asking for it.”
The play dives into the concept of what we perceive as right and wrong and how emotions can start to muddle people’s views and create bias. We as the audience know that murder is wrong no matter what, but when residents are interviewed on the topic of whether or not the murderers deserve the death sentence, the answer becomes not so simple.
“How can we sentence him to death if we [have] known him his entire life?” another student says when talking about one of the characters they play. It seems simple, as a viewer of the play. The death sentence would undoubtedly be my choice. But If I knew the person – if I even called the person my friend – I’m not sure I’d come to that conclusion so easily.
The Laramie Project is not an easy watch and that’s not its purpose whatsoever. If you’re planning on seeing the production, prepare to be challenged and uneasy for most of it. As I sat in the audience, I noticed the wide range of ages of people watching the play and it made me wonder what people of an older generation were thinking. What was going on through their minds? Some people may even feel as if they’re looking in a mirror, seeing parts of themselves they’re too afraid to confront.
Just as the people depicted in The Laramie Project aren’t two-dimensional, neither is the stage. As soon as you enter the Ender Hall Lab Theatre, you’re greeted by what Dr. Jonaitis refers to as an “immersive audience experience.” The stage runs like a cross and the audience sits between the spaces of the intersections. I thought that set design was creative and would keep audiences attentive, but I could see how the crew could run into issues. Fellow Torch writer Jazmin Perez, who got to see the play on opening night, said she sat in the back row in one of the sections which unfortunately ended up being right in front of the company’s green room. She said that at times it was difficult for her to focus on the performance when she could frequently hear actors laughing or whispering behind her while waiting to go on stage.
Apart from that, major credit is due to the props coordinator and costume designers. Bregenstages found many intuitive ways to bring elevation to scenes, such as the angel costumes during the funeral segment, or the news equipment during the hospital CEO’s addresses, while simultaneously balancing the budget allotted to them. The play itself did not need to be a technical spectacle and the company found the perfect moments to bring out their talents in design in ways that would enhance the story.
I’d like to end on this note. As I was winding down the interview with the ensemble, I asked them what their reasons would be for students and others to come to see their performance. Interestingly, a little disagreement arose between some of the actors when one of them mentioned how history is bound to repeat itself. I hastily agreed, seeing as how even in this day and age I unfortunately see hate crimes being committed against the LGBTQ+ community, whether it be on my Twitter account or my TikTok feed. Two other actors chimed in, pointing out that it’s much bigger than that and not what they want the audience to walk away with. It’s “How we can learn from history?” They went on to say, “If you want to be a good community member, keep your eyes open and heart open to the people around you.” Ultimately that’s what I take away from The Laramie Project. Despite the disheartening fact that to this day no laws or acts have been passed in Laramie regarding the incident, this story should be seen as a lesson.
Hope is the strongest feeling. When unified amongst a community, it leads to inevitable change. The Laramie Project allows Matthew Shepard’s story to live on and continue to spark hope in the hearts of future generations to do better and create better for their communities and their homes. Bravo to each and every one of the actors who were a part of this production. Taking on the lives of so many people and serving each of them justice is no small feat. An amazing start to the Bergen Stages 2023-24 season.