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Passion of 'Laramie' Lionface play confronts gay bashing PDF Print E-mail
Written by Sentinel-Tribune Staff   
Thursday, 25 April 2013 11:00
Cast members act out a court case in the murder of Matthew Shepard during a rehearsal of "The Laramie Project" by Lionface Productions on April 24, 2013. (Photos: Enoch Wu/Sentinel-Tribune)
"The Laramie Project," the documentary play about the death of gay college student Matthew Shepard, is an American Passion play.
Lionface Productions' staging makes that all the more obvious. Using a former church on Court Street in Bowling Green, the fence on which Shepard was tied after being severely beaten is at center stage with the action in the first act revolving around the fence, and then culminating with the actors gathered around it.
While Shepard is the victim, he is not as the Catholic priest Roger Schmit says "condemned to perfection."
He is a human full of personality and foibles, warm, caring, and maybe a bit confrontational.
All this comes to us filtered through those who knew him or knew of him. Shepard does not get to speak for himself.
Lionface's "The Laramie Project" is being staged Friday at 8 p.m. and Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m. at 123 E. Court St., Bowling Green. Tickets are $7 and $5 for seniors and students.
Shepard was murdered in October, 1998 in Laramie, Wyo. A gay man, his assault was determined to be a hate crime, and much to the residents' dismay, the entire community, not just the two local guys who committed the crime, was put on trial.
Shepard's assault - he didn't die until days after he was found tied to a fence on a remote spot outside town - attracted a frenzy of media attention. It also attracted the attention of New York playwright Moises Kaufman. He and other members of the New York-based Tectonic Theater Project traveled to Laramie in the aftermath.
Over the course of a half dozen visits they interviewed about 200 people connected to the case, and from those interviews created one of the most often staged and powerful pieces of contemporary theater.
The play uses nine actors to portray about 60 characters in a series of brief scenes.
Kaufman's character (Ryan Halfhill) expresses his own misgivings about how the big city thespians will be greeted in cowboy country: "No one goes out alone. Everyone carries cell phones."
What they find is a cast of characters that could very well populate a more light-hearted play about the quirky characters out West. Marge (Molly Weinerg) tells a young interviewer than she does her housework "in the altogether."
We meet natives and transplants. People who love the place and people who have made their peace with the place. But all that is unsettled following Shepard's murder.
Rachel Hetrick acts as Reggie Fluty during a rehearsal of "The Laramie Project" by Lionface Productions on April 24, 2013.
Rebecca Hilliker (Rachel Hetrick) is a theater teacher at the University of Wyoming in Laramie. Early on she praises her students for being plainspoken, even if their views are can be "redneck." That's better than expressing no views at all, she says.
The play unfolds in three acts (done here with one intermission). The first explores what leads up to the crime and ends with Matthew Shepard being found near death.
The second deals with the days immediately following and culminating in Shepard's death. The play concludes with the trial of the two murderers Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney (both played by Ryan Albrecht).
Underpinning the play is a sense of the Tectonic cast members having their preconceptions of Laramie shaken. The heroes are not necessarily those they would have expected.
The priest (Joel Paine) proves to be a moral center. Without hesitation he opens his church up for a vigil as Shepard lies. The city's other ministers, aside from the Unitarian, want to bide their time.
Then there's deputy Reggie Fluty (Hetrick) who in her desperate attempt to treat Shepard at the scene is exposed to AIDS.
The Lionface cast, directed by Michael Portteus, does an excellent job with voice, gesture and the absolute minimum of costuming and props to bring their multiple personalities to life.
Having single actors play multiple roles emphasizes the interwoven social web. Brittany Pausch's roles include the mountain biker who discovered Shepard and Romaine, his long-time friend, turned activist by his death. Albrecht plays not only the killers, but Jedediah Shultz, an ambitious theater student who is forced to confront the anti-gay attitudes he was brought up with even as he portrays a gay character on stage.
Chase Will, who plays the taxi driver and bartender, also portrays two very different kinds of authority figures - the judgemental anti-gay bigot Fred Phelps, who gained national notoriety by protesting at Shepard's funeral, and the judge presiding over Henderson's trial and delivers a scathing indictment of Henderson's crime.
As Shepard's father Halfhill delivers the climax of the performance as he speaks at McKinney's trial, urging he not be given the death penalty. In the monologue Dennis Shepard struggles with his own desire for retribution. But now, he concludes, is a time for healing to begin.
That the murder forces the city to confront its attitude toward gays is seen as positive by many, but not all.
Zubida Ula (Kat Moran) speaks bitterly of the attitude that Laramie is not that kind of place that would condone gay bashing. "It is this kind of town," she says. Why else would two local men, who she grew up with, commit the crime? "We need to win by admitting... we are like this."
That's one of the hard, yet elusive, truths the play confronts, and why it continues to be a riveting and  essential piece of theater.
Last Updated on Thursday, 25 April 2013 12:13

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