A theatre company comprised of socially-engaged artists seeks answers in HBO's world television premiere of "The Laramie Project," based on the Off-Broadway and hit regional play by Moisés Kaufman and his colleagues, 8 PM March 9.
The picture was originally scheduled to make its television debut March 16 but when NBC announced it would air its own TV movie on the same subject — the 1998 murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard — on that date, HBO moved the debut to March 9. HBO produced the picture with Good Machine.
Kaufman directed and adapted the film from the 2000 play he directed and co-wrote with his Tectonic Theater Project members. The Laramie Project had its world stage premiere by Denver Center Theatre Company in February 2000 and moved to Off-Broadway prior to its current explosion of stagings in the regional theatre. It focuses on the community response to the murder of young Shepard. The play is a unique autobiographical investigation about New York theatre artists who travel to Laramie, WY, to interview residents about the fall day when Shepard was beaten senseless, tied to a fence and left to die in freezing temperatures. He later died at a hospital. Denver Center Theatre Company billed the play as a "cultural pulse-taking."
On stage in the original production, in both New York and Denver, the cast included the same actors who conducted interviews or visited Laramie and environs. On a bare stage, they played multiple parts in a kind of docu-drama style, though Kaufman told Playbill On-Line he dislikes the notion that the show is a kind of theatrical journalism. In the film, such well known actors as Peter Fonda, Camryn Manheim, Frances Sternhaden, Amy Madigan and Christina Ricci play characters the troupe encounters. Stage veteran Terry Kinney plays the victim's father, Dennis Shepard. Nestor Carbonell ("The Tick," "Suddenly Susan") plays director-writer Moisés Kaufman. Tectonic's Kelli Simpkins and Andy Paris, members of the troupe, play themselves. Other Tectonic company members were cast in supporting parts throughout the film.
The film cast includes Dylan Baker, Tom Bower, Clancy Brown, Steve Buscemi, Kathleen Chalfant, Jeremy Davies, Clea Duvall, Peter Fonda, Ben Foster, Janeane Garofalo, Bill Irwin, Joshua Jackson, Terry Kinney, Laura Linney, Amy Madigan, Camryn Manheim, Margo Martindale, James Murtaugh, Summer Phoenix, Christina Ricci, Lois Smith, Frances Sternhagen and Mark Webber. The picture was shot in Laramie and Denver in spring 2001, at actual locations where events took place. "The Laramie Project" was the first film screened at the 2002 Sundance Film Festival in January.
How does the theatre company go about exploring the territory in the film?
"Armed with a list of names, Moisés and his fellow company members interview a cross-section of Laramie residents who reveal as much about the collective psyche of their town as they do about the crime itself," according to HBO production notes. "Among those who we meet (and whose stories are interwoven throughout the narrative): a University of Wyoming Theatre Department teacher who was originally skeptical about The Laramie Project but who now feels that talking about the incident will be therapeutic for the community; a student who won a theatre scholarship by performing (against his parents' wishes) a scene from Angels in America; a car-service driver who drove Matthew Shepard to a gay bar in Fort Collins, Colorado, an hour away (there are no gay bars in Laramie); a teacher who was the first lesbian to be 'outed' at Wyoming University; the bartender of the bar where Matthew was picked up; the cyclist who found an unconscious Matthew by the fence; the officer who was first on the scene, and who later feared she had been exposed to the AIDS virus when it was determined that Matthew was HIV-positive; friends and acquaintances of Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, the two Laramie men accused of the crime; several ministers from local churches, who preach tolerance but do not condone the homosexual lifestyle; the leader of an anti-gay group that crashes the Shepard funeral; and many others."
"The Laramie Project" includes scenes from the separate trials of McKinney and Henderson, climaxing with an impassioned speech from Matthew's father at McKinney's sentencing: "I would like nothing better than to see you die," Dennis Shepard tells one of his son's killers. "However, this is the time to begin the healing process, to show mercy to someone who refused to show mercy... I give you life in the memory of one who no longer lives."
Matthew Shepard in not a character in the film.
The screenplay is by Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project. The playing schedule for encore showings of the HBO film are March 12, March 17, March 21, March 27 and March 30.
To view Playbill On-Line's 2000 Brief Encounter interview with director Moisés Kaufman, who talks about the stage production, click here.
— By Kenneth Jones