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THEATER REVIEW The Laramie Project
by Kerry Reid
2018-06-12

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At: Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark St.

Tickets: 773-828-9129; AstonRep.com; $15-$25. Runs through: July 8

It's been nearly twenty years since the brutal slaying of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyoming. At a time when new public displays of hatred and bigotry—aided and abetted by the highest office-holders in the land—seem to go viral on social media every day, it's not surprising that the urge to remount The Laramie Project would hit. Indeed, Moises Kaufman and his Tectonic Theater Project colleagues themselves revisited Laramie in 2008 for a 10-year retrospective called—wait for it—The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later

That newer material seems mostly absent in AstonRep's staging, directed by Derek Bertelsen. Some of the more recent controversies about what actually happened on Oct. 6, 1998, between Shepard and the two men who killed him and are in jail for the rest of their lives—Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson—don't really enter into this narrative. A 2004 20/20 special report and a much-criticized 2013 book by Stephen Jimenez, The Book of Matt, both attempted to suggest that Shepard was involved in meth and that this somehow was the cause of his murder. ( Apparently ,some people still think a victim who is less than completely pure isn't really a victim. )

Bertelsen's staging features a cast of 12 playing more than 60 roles, and they do so with remarkable aplomb. The decision to add musical interludes with John Denver songs feels out of place, though the cast members who sing and play guitar do so with earnest clear-voiced appeal.

What Bertelsen and his cast don't lose sight of is that it's not possible to pin down one definitive narrative on what Matthew Shepard's life and death meant for Laramie and beyond. But amid the cacophony of media reports and ruminations upon whether anything has really changed in a big way for LGBTQ people, it's clear that Shepard's death did cause at least some in Laramie to re-examine their values and beliefs, or claim them with a stronger sense of public purpose.

Jedadiah Schultz ( Matt Harris ), a young theater major at University of Wyoming who loves Angels in America but struggles with his religious convictions about homosexuality, finds a way to challenge both himself and his conservative parents in the aftermath of Shepard's death. Rob DeBree ( Rob Frankel ), the detective who interrogated Henderson, talks about speaking up for LGBTQ rights and losing friends in the process. And Shepard's lesbian friend, Romaine Patterson ( Dana Anderson ) turns her grief and rage into "Angel Action," where people don huge angel wings to block out the hateful venom spewed by the Rev. Fred Phelps and his minions.

This AstonRep production serves as an appropriate anniversary elegy for Shepard, and also offers a glimmer of hope that even in our own dark times, some better angels will step forward.


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