By Simon Rollins, Staff Writer
Jayne Decker’s production of “The Laramie Project” carved moments of glint throughout the show as the student cast kneaded with weighty content. The show had successful moments, but unfortunately lacked a certain harmony.
The docudrama, set in 1999, chronicles the aftermath of a young homosexual man’s murder named Matthew Shepard. Presented with a story that sheds minimal light on Shepard as an individual (an interesting approach from Moises Kaufman, the play’s writer, when considering the subject matter), the audience is, instead, dependent on a journalistic portrait of Laramie, Wyoming—the town where Shepard was murdered—to interpret Shepard’s death along with the social issues of prejudice and evil present in the play. Themes here stretch beyond the scope of one person and one town; they dip into pertinent matters still breathing in 2015.
In the play, a group of theater actors investigate Laramie to undercover the root causes of the murder that took place there. As a whole, the production was appreciable, though, I wonder at times if the entire cast was on the same wavelength. For example, right out of the gate: UMF’s actors did an exceptional job of portraying journalists investigating a small town, but they failed at portraying actors attempting journalism. This relatively minor detail was a flaw, but it took little away from the play’s overall success. Still, without clouding the play’s route, it was perhaps a sign of misconception on the end of Decker’s actors.
Analyzing further, we note on a theme in which the cast was also foggy around. The play leaves us with a question: Who exactly should we blame beyond the scope of the victim and the malefactor? Should we point at homophobes as a community or should we blame mankind?
There are certainly those who lack the desire to accept homosexuals due to it being a foreign subject. As we have been taught since kids, people fear the unknown. But I wonder, should the opposing community blame this group of people for feeling this way or, alternatively, seek to understand their attitudes and why?
The pins of the piece were certainly set for the second direction. We have a gay writer and director in Kaufman leading his actors to Wyoming to undercover the heart of a modern American problem. Though, it is precisely this territory where I don’t think UMF Theater delivered. The energy we receive from the cast is to enthusiastically shun those who do not take the side of the politically correct. The script holds the belief that, as people, we can no longer take a stand against “them”—there can no longer be an “us” and “them” mentality.
Kaufman understood that everyone should live level upon the same plain—If you don’t like one group of people, that’s your own fault; you’re missing out. But these communities that think antiquatedly cannot be simply dismissed from our conversation. Maybe annoying people like Westboro Baptists could be dismissed, but for the most part, as an early adopter in society, one should seek to understand these people.
It was suiting that the most striking scene of the play came with standout actor Aaron Verrill portraying Fred Phelps, a preacher in the play. The small man in stature stood vulnerable atop the highest platform of the stage holding signs he could barely wrap his arms around, parading messages bigger than himself. The scene could have easily turned comedic had Verrill not been on point. He provided a sonic high end, like a pianist’s right hand running wildly about, plugging holes of sound where we didn’t realize holes existed, while the remaining onstage cast set in place a constant, looping lowend formed from the familiar tune “Amazing Grace.”
The play certainly has it moments of captivation. Though, I feel as if certain aspects of the production were reaching for opposing goals that actors either did not understand or collectively harmonize towards.