Analysis of a Murder

On the night of October 6, 1998, Matthew Shepard was brutally beaten, tortured, and left to die, tied to a barbed wire fence.  His assailants were caught within a day, but the revelation that the vicious attack was, at least, partially motivated by Shepard’s orientation and his subsequent death six days later shone an ugly spotlight on the small town of Laramie, Wyoming.  In an attempt to understand the factors that led to the savage crime and to share the truth, Moises Kaufman and Members of Tectonic Theater Project traveled to Laramie to conduct interviews with the town’s citizens and those who knew him.  The end result of these interviews and news stories was The Laramie Project and it is currently running at The Barn Players.

This is certainly the most ambitious play that I’ve ever seen as Kaufman and Members of Tectonic Theater Project conducted nearly 200 interviews, spliced in news stories, and somehow managed to edit it into the most real play I’m likely to view in my lifetime.  And the reason it’s so real is that is real.  Every word said in this show was said in reality and everything that occurs happened in real life.  The show completely eschews the normal narrative style as each scene is a disparate, standalone bit.  Yet, somehow, it all has a natural flow and tells a gripping tale about the evils of prejudice.  It was both an education and a privilege to watch this masterful bit of storytelling by an ensemble of talented performers that were universally up for the game.

In order to do true justice to this production, I would have to write a 50 page review.  But let me say that this show is an actor’s dream as each and every performer has to play multiple characters.  This requires a cast of top flight, versatile thespians and this show has that in spades as there isn’t a weak link to be found.

Some of the many stellar performances to be found in this production come from Christa James who excels as Shephard’s close friend, Romaine Peterson; Gideon Madison who is particularly convincing as Jedidiah Schultz, a young theatre student who also has the biggest character arc in the show; Larissa Briley as the compassionate Officer Reggie Fluty who cared for the brutalized Shephard at great personal risk after it was discovered he was HIV positive; Christoph Cording who provides levity and wisdom as Doc O’Connor; and Matt Fowler who has the night’s most heart rending moment with his portrayal of Shepard’s father, Dennis, who will get tears flowing with his victim’s statement at the sentencing of his son’s killer.

I was quite taken with Ron Meyer’s portrayal of Father Roger Schmit.  He was gregarious.  He was bold.  He was even humorous with his preciseness of speech.  Most importantly he had a powerful sense of justice.  Schmit helped to organize the vigils for Matthew Shephard, believing it to be right.  But he was also bound and determined to see the truth of the situation be told about the situation.  He wanted justice for Matthew and believed part of the sentencing of his killers should include them telling their story to explain how they reached their particular point and he also insisted that the makers of the play “tell the story correct”.

Brent Custer has some incredible versatility and an epic example of this ability is demonstrated in his beautifully disparate renditions of Aaron McKinney, one of Shephard’s killers, and Matt Galloway, the bartender who was the last person to see Shephard before the crime.

As Galloway, Custer is friendly and observant as he proves to be a potent eyewitness for the prosecution and a bit of a philosopher.  He helps to damage the credibility of the defense’s gay panic theory (claiming that McKinney murdered Shephard in a fit of rage after an unwanted sexual advance) with his theories on territoriality as he claims Shephard’s killers approached him and not the other way around.  His Galloway is also a bit of a ham who clearly enjoys his 15 minutes of fame as a star witness and is quite amusing with his explaining the art of testifying.

With a snap of the fingers, Custer changes from the affable Galloway to the cold and sullen Aaron McKinney.  As McKinney he is as cold-blooded as a reptile and as remorseless a human as you’ll ever see as he calmly admits to his dislike of homosexuals and casually describes the horrific beating he inflicted on Shephard while callously ignoring his pleas to stop.  His only concern is whether he gets 25 to life or the death penalty.

Josh Jackson gives a tour de force performance with the many different roles he portrays in the night’s production.  Seldom have I seen an actor with such transformative abilities as he becomes different personas with slight changes in body language and vocal control.  Through the night, he’ll tug at your heart as Greg Pierotti, a theatre member who felt a kinship with Shepard, repulse you as the hate-mongering Fred Phelps, and make you laugh as the bar owner, Matt Mickelson.

Guiding a show of this difficulty requires a steady and confident director and this show assuredly had one and then some in the form of Ashton Botts.  Her staging is immaculate and struck a unique dichotomy with static movement combined with unyielding energy.  The actors don’t move much, but that’s actually crucial for this show as the energy needs to be on the words in order to draw in the viewer.  It’s also one of the most impressive pieces of coaching I’ve ever seen as the energy of her actors never wanes and each of the sixty characters they play are well-defined and different.  There’s never a point when you don’t know which character an actor is playing.

Nathan Wyman’s simple set of risers and chairs unlock the theatre of the mind as the actors adjust the chairs to suit the scenes and let the audience’s imagination do the rest.  Chuck Cline’s use of lights enhance the story so much with his minimalist application to put the focus squarely on the essential performers of each scene.  Brenna McConaughey’s costumes are as real and natural as the performances of the actors.

This is a very hard show to watch, but it is also a very necessary show to watch due to the challenging themes it presents and the difficult questions it asks.  Where are our values?  Why do we hate that which is different?  Why does society relish sensationalism?  There are no easy answers to these questions, but a statement from Jedidiah Schultz points us in the direction we should be going when he says, “How could I ever think they were different from me?”  When society makes that same realization and starts pulling together like the family it is, this world will be a marvelous place.

The Laramie Project runs at The Barn Players through May 30.  Showtimes are Thurs-Sat at 7:30pm (and for a showing on Monday, May 24) and Sundays at 2pm.  The show is only available via livestream and tickets may be purchased at https://www.showtix4u.com/event-details/52153.  Tickets cost $15.  Due to mature themes and language, the show is not suitable for children.  The Barn Players is located at 1000 E 9th St, Ste 225 in Kansas City, MO.

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