One of the nation's most high-profile recent crimes, the murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard, impacts a Wyoming town in complex ways in Moises Kaufman's The Laramie Project, beginning Off Broadway previews April 26 at the Union Square Theatre.
The docudrama, directed by Kaufman and written in collaboration with his Tectonic Theater Project, does not have Shepard as a character, but shows how the city of Laramie, WY, responded to the brutal beating in 1998. Video, rain effects, monologues, interviews and music are said to be part of the production's mix. Official opening is May 18.
The Laramie Project had its world premiere Feb. 19-April 1 by the Denver Center Theatre Company, in association with the Tectonic Theater Project. That run, which had audiences sobbing and standing and selling out the intimate 250-seat Ricketson Theatre only had scattered seats available during the run, and earned national media attention.
Producer Roy Gabay picked the staging up and fast-tracked it for a New York stand. He produces with Tectonic and in association with Gayle Francis and The Araca Group.
The Denver cast and design elements -- Robert Brill (set), Moe Schell (costumes) and Betsy Adams (lighting) -- appear at the Union Square Theatre. Peter Golub is the composer. The docudrama features actor-writers playing the people they personally interviewed in Laramie, WY, following the 1998 crucifixion-style murder of Shepard. Issues of bigotry, class, violence, homophobia and stereotyping ricochet in the drama.
Kaufman, who made his name with Off Broadway's similarly presentational Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, writes in his program notes:
"The Laramie Project was written through a unique collaboration by Tectonic Theater Project. During the year-and-a-half development of the play, members of the company and I traveled to Laramie six times to conduct interviews with the people of the town. We transcribed and edited the interview transcripts then conducted several workshops, presenting material to the company and acting as dramaturgs in the creation of the play.
"As the volume of material grew with each additional trip to Laramie, a small writers group from within the company began to work closely with me to organize and edit this material, conduct additional research in Laramie, and collaborate on the writing of the play. This group was led by Leigh Fondakowski as Head Writer, with Stephen Belber and Greg Pierotti as Associate Writers.
"As we got closer to the play's first production in Denver, the actors, including Stephen Belber and Greg Pierotti, turned their focus to performance, while Leigh Fondakowski continued to work with me on drafts of the play, as did Stephen Wangh, who by then had joined us as an Associate Writer and self-proclaimed 'bench coach.'"
The acting company includes associate writer Belber (as himself and others), dramaturg Amanda Gronich (as herself and others), Mercedes Herrero (ensemble), dramaturg John McAdams (as Moises Kaufman and others), dramaturg Andy Paris (as himself and others), associate writer Pierotti (as himself and others), dramaturg Barbara Pitts (as herself and others), dramaturg Kelli Simpkins (as Fondakowski and others), and understudies James Asher and Molly Powell.
Kaufman's Tectonic Theater Project (which he artistic-directs in collaboration with managing director Jeffrey LaHoste) is a nonprofit theatre company "dedicated to exploring theatrical language and form." It was founded in 1991.
Its first production, Women in Beckett, was the collection of all of Samuel Beckett's short plays for women performed by a cast aged 65-80. Tectonic has produced works by emerging playwrights such as Naomi Iizuka (Coxinga and Marlowe's Eye); classics such as Beckett's Endgame and Sophie Treadwell's Machinal; and a highly acclaimed production of Franz Xaver Kroetz's The Nest (with a stylized set of puppetry by puppeteer Basil Twist). Tectonic dedicated two years to the development of Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, a new play written and directed by Kaufman. The play caused a popular and critical sensation when it began in New York in the end of February 1997. Gross Indecency transferred to Off-Broadway and ran over 18 months. Tectonic's production was mounted by the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles and enjoyed a six-month run at Theater on the Square in San Francisco, as there have been stagings in Toronto, London, and in 40 regional theatres and internationally in Paris, Stockholm, Montreal, Mexico City, Budapest, and multiple venues in Germany.
With the use of video, The Laramie Project occasionally shows "public" responses to the crime, but when the cameras are off, actors turn and reveal deeper feelings, based on their interviews with doctors, cops, residents and others.
McAdams, Pierotti and Paris appeared in the Off-Broadway staging of Tectonic's Gross Indecency in 1997.
Preview tickets are $40, with same-day, first-row rush seats at $20. Regular performances are $55, with $25 rush seats. The Union Square Theatre is at 100 E. 17th Street (off Union Square/Park Avenue South).
Call (212) 307-4100 or (800) 775-4000 for information.
-- By Kenneth Jones