October 7 1998: On the outskirts of Laramie Wyoming, 21 year old University student, Matthew Shepard is found tied to a fence, savagely beaten and fighting for life. 6 days later, Matthew Shepard loses that struggle. Universally denounced as a gay hate crime, Matthew’s murder brings to light the inadequacy of US hate crime laws and becomes an historical moment in the US civil rights movement.
A month after the murder, The Tectonic Theatre Project, a New York theatre company, travelled to Laramie and conducted interviews with locals struggling with the aftermath of Matthew’s horrific murder. Visiting Laramie six times over two years, and under the guidance of playwright and director, Moises Kaufman, the company recorded more than 200 interviews. These interviews, along with court transcripts and media reports where workshopped into one of the most powerful verbatim theatre pieces and has been seen by over 30 million Americans alone.
Not for profit / charity organisation Bottledsnail Productions bring this remarkable theatre experience back to the Melbourne stage. Established in 2013, Bottledsnail have staged over 35 projects and raised more then $50,000 for charity – so it seems fitting that a company with an obvious social conscience present such an important and moving work.
Director Nicky Neville-Jones has assembled a very talented cast. This ensemble of 8 portray more than sixty characters in a series of moving and believable vignettes. A couple of clichéd interpretations aside, each actor demonstrates respect for the words and the characters who spoke them. Individually, they are talented actors but together they are a terrific ensemble of storytellers.
From the array of characters, each actor brings something very special to the fore. Lyndall Ablett and Prani West as St Reggie Fluty, Matthew Shepards first responder and her mother Marge Murray share a very real and lovely mother / daughter bond; Mudit Dhami’s Harry Woods, an older gay Laramie resident, is genuinely affecting in his appreciation to the people walking in support of Matthew; Muslim student Zubaida Ula, disheartened by her towns lack of accountability, is perfectly pitched by Laura Elliott; while Samuel Rogers as Fireside bartender Matt Galloway is wonderfully earnest and engaging.
In the pivotal role of Father Roger Schmit, Chad Drevers beautifully conveys that violence and hate extends far beyond the physical; Samuel Fung’s enthusiastic theatre student, Jedidiah Schultz, is a pleasure to see evolve from hesitant supporter to willing defender and Jessica Symonds as Aaron Kreifels, the boy who finds Matthew tied to the fence, is beautifully understated in a poignantly powerful performance.
But the performances could not be as good if it wasn’t for the thoughtful and respectful direction that Neville-Jones provides. It is very clear from the outset that this is a director who has a clear vision with subtlety, restraint and maturity in her directional choices. If I had one critique it was the decision to utilise onstage costume changes. The strength of the text, the direction and the actors are enough to carry these characterisations. The unnecessary movement, although subtle, was distracting. But this is only one complication from an otherwise fine directional achievement.
Martin Gray’s lighting design, Michael Birkett’s soundscape coupled with Nathan Bell’s emotive composition produce a wonderfully atmospheric experience – the feeling of a cold, stark Wyoming landscape is particularly good. Less successful though are the filmed medical updates. The video projection, while well produced by Birkett and well performed by Drever lost the impact a live delivery allows. There was a distinct disconnect between the filmed updates and Drever’s final live delivery informing of Matthew’s death. But again this is a small flaw in an otherwise very well designed production.
20 years on The Laramie Project is still as powerful as when it was first produced. It still challenges, it still invites debate, it still asks questions. Congratulations to Bottledsnail productions for continuing that legacy in presenting an intelligent, respectful and utterly moving production.