Aaron Webster. Ritchie Dowrey. Steve Gian. Jordan Smith. These are just a few of the names that came to mind last night as I watched the Theatre at UBC production of The Laramie Project, playing at the Frederic Wood Theatre at UBC through Novemer 28th, and I was simultaneously grateful and saddened that even after eleven years this play still remains relevant.
On October 6th 1998, Matthew Shepard was brutally beaten and left for dead, tied to a fence in Laramie, Wyoming simply because he was gay. In the days, weeks and months that followed Matthew’s death, members of the Tectonic Theatre Project conducted hundreds of interviews with Laramie residents. These interviews, combined with their own journal entries and published news reports, became the basis for The Laramie Project, exploring the reaction of residents to Mathew’s murder through to the trial of the accused killers Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney.
Originally written for a cast of eight, Director Nicola Cavendish has expanded this production to fifteen. By doubling the cast Cavendish has not only given more of these young theatre students an opportunity to actually participate in the show, but has also given her actors the opportunity to delve deeper into their characters than they might have been able to if they had been expected to portray twice as many.
The cast of the Theatre at UBC production of The Laramie Project. Photo: Tim Matheson.
For the most part the cast here does a good job moving from character to character and it was not hard to see the skilled hands of Cavendish pushing the fluidity and timing of the scenes as her actors take on their various personae. And while some of the actors were more successful than others in connecting with their assigned characters, I couldn’t help but be struck by the obvious reverence they all had for the material. Particular standouts in the cast for me were Meaghan Chenosky, Claire Hesselgrave, Barbara Kozicki and Jameson Parker.
Ronald Fedoruk’s set design is simple with the rustic wooden fence the primary focus ensuring we are constantly reminded of where Matthew was beaten and left to die. Zoe Green’s costume design is well put together although I did feel a tiny bit insulted that the actors had to wear the word Tectonic on their generic brown t-shirts so we could figure out when they were playing a member of the Tectonic Theatre Project (mind you, I am similarly insulted when captions are used on television because someone has an accent). Jonathon Monro’s sound design remains unobtrusive but helpful in underscoring a number of the scenes.
A mere three weeks ago, U.S. President Barak Obama signed the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act (Byrd was an African American who, also in 1998, was chained to a pick-up truck and dragged to his death in Texas). And while eleven years after the horrific murder of Matthew Shepard The Laramie Project continues to have an impact, more importantly, eleven years later Matthew’s death continues to have an even greater impact.
If you have never seen The Laramie Project I recommend taking in this Theatre at UBC production not only as a powerful piece of theatre but as a reminder that while our community has made great strides, we still have a long way to go. And like me, I hope that after watching you feel empowered, you stand up and you demand that Matthew, Aaron, Ritchie, Steve, Jordan and the countless thousands of other gay men and women who have been victims of gay bashings, are never forgotten, did not suffer or die in vain and that one day we can all truly be safe. We want nothing more and certainly deserve nothing less.