Theatrical: ‘The Laramie Project’

Matthew_Shepard

Last night I went to see ‘The Laramie Project’ – the final production by the students at the Gaiety School of Acting. Based on the 2000 play by Moisés Kaufman and the Tectonic Theater Project, about the reaction to the 1998 homophobic murder of gay University of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard in the small town of Laramie. The play draws on hundreds of interviews conducted by the theatre company with inhabitants of the town, journal entries, and published news reports. Last night ten actors portrayed more than sixty characters in a series of short scenes.

Matthew Shepard (1976 –1998) was a student at the University of Wyoming. He was robbed, beaten, tortured, pistol-whipped, crucified and left to die near Laramie on the night of October 6, 1998. Upon discovery of his body he was taken to hospital in Colorado, where he died six days later from severe head injuries. His killers Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson were arrested shortly after the attack and charged with first-degree murder following Shepard’s death. Shepard met McKinney and Henderson at the Fireside Lounge in Laramie. All three men were in their early twenties. McKinney and Henderson gave Shepard a ride home. Upon their arrest they claimed that Shephard had made sexual advances at them.

This case was a media sensation, highlighting the lack of hate-crime legislation in the US and the ongoing problem of ingrained homophobic bigotry in the culture (which seems to have lessened somewhat in the twenty years since the murder).

I found the play a bit frustrating to watch because of the context and the content. This has nothing to do with the cast or the performances (which I will get to). I felt slightly uneasy at the manner in which Matthew Shepard was just a symbol in this play– a posterchild for gay victimhood. His story is tragic but we hear little about him as a person. His killers were given a far more rounded portrayal.

The vein of hatred running underneath  the town was chilling – Shepard allegedly made a pass at the killers – so he got what was coming to him. The religious leaders were as weak as ever with their victim-blaming.

What struck me most was the dysfunction of American society (even more pronounced today) on the subject of violence. The people condemning Shepard’s killers had no qualms about calling for their execution (both were eventually sentenced to life in prison). The belief in ‘god’ to attempt to make meaning of savagery was tragic. The refusal to acknowledge that there may be something intrinsically rotten and evil in an addiction to guns. The idea that ‘thoughts and prayers’ for victims are an adequate response to cold blooded murder? Utter madness.

It made the play seem a touch simplistic and the characters vaguely offensive. I never read about mass murders in America any more – there is absolutely no point seeing as nothing will be done about their gun laws. This idea that hate crime legislation (which would mean tougher sentences on the perpetrators if a crime is motivated by racism or homophobia) is a solution to their murder problem is nonsensical – the murder rate in the USA dwarfs other wealthy countries and the US accounts for over 22% of the world’s prison population with less than 5% of the actual population. Hate crime legislation doesn’t seem to act as any deterrent to violent crime.

The content of the play made me feel pretty hopeless. Mass murder is a never-ending cycle in the USA and with that orange fascist in charge it’s not changing any time soon.

The actors and production were very impressive however. It was the performance in an American accent which may not have been the wisest choice; being slightly distracting to hear some performers veer between an American twang and an Irish ‘howerya’. Luckily this is a minor gripe. It was a noble feat for each actor to commit to ten parts in a two hour play.

Special mention must go to Eilis O’Sullivan playing infamous hate-preacher Fred Phelps (he of ‘God hates fags’ fame). I love a good villain. She committed fully to the role. Obviously I detest the character but I was cheering her portrayal. Sometimes nothing is more satisfying than roaring ‘You are all going to HELL’. Dympna Heffernan excelled as glamourous lesbian Catherine Connolly and a vinegar lipped Baptist Minister’s wife. Kaitlin Cottelle was entertaining and believable as Romaine Patterson. Narrator Dara Keegan deserves and award for her impressive memory for names.

Much credit must go to the cast for a very engaging evening of theatre. The last show is tonight Friday 6th at the Gaiety School of Acting. Admission is a mere €10.

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