Kentucky Fried Theater

The Laramie Project takes a tragic American hate crime to the edge of parody

There is a parody of The Blair Witch Project that shows up occasionally on public-access television in which an unseen cameraman walks through his own apartment, flinging open closets and tugging on his refrigerator door, crying out in mock terror at everything he sees: detergents, appliances, old sandwiches. Of course, this is just one of hundreds of similar parodies that sprang up in the wake of the Blair Witch phenomenon, from digital-video Internet sites to community-college seminars on basic filmmaking. Some things--like German pop music and Republican presidents--just seem to invite parody.

The Laramie Project, currently playing at the Illusion Theater, offers such an invitation. Perhaps it's the name, which seems somehow incomplete without the word "Witch" inserted in the middle. Not to downplay the intentions of the production, which couldn't be more earnest: In 1998, a month after Matthew Shepard's horrendous murder in Laramie, Wyoming, members of Moisés Kaufman's Tectonic Theater Project traveled from New York to the town of Shepard's death and began interviewing locals. Over the next year they made five more such trips and pieced together a play from 200 interviews, transcripts of the trials of Shepard's killers, and their own journals. It is this script the Illusion Theater is now staging.

Film director John Waters used to write about his dream of instant movies, where the news events of the day would be instantaneously converted to celluloid. The Laramie Project, along with the similarly documentary-style theater of Anna Deveare Smith, is about as close to Waters's dream as we are likely to see on the stage. Of course, Waters wanted cruelty: His lone attempt at such a movie, titled The Diane Linkletter Story and filmed the day after Linkletter fell to her death (supposedly under the influence of LSD), consisted mostly of drag queen Divine screaming in a stoned rage before plummeting out a window. The Laramie Project is not that: It is sober, somber, and high-minded. But I have already heard rumors of a parody in the works titled The Plank Project, in which ten aloof, bungling New York actors descend on a small town to report on the death of a morbidly obese man.

Interestingly, the cast of the Illusion Theater's production of The Laramie Project (including Illusion regulars Aimee K. Bryant, Zach Curtis, and Beth Gilleland) seem to recognize that there is something essentially comical about ten New York actors wandering around Laramie, pressing their microcassette recorders into the faces of surprised locals, and occasionally bursting into crocodile tears. Like most American cities struck by tragedy in the past decade--and the Shepard slaying was nothing less than that--Laramie instantly became the site of egregious journalistic misbehavior, with hundreds of aggressive reporters shouting impertinent questions over the relentless clicking of camera shutters. Throw the hesitant voices of ten bewildered actors into the din and you've got a scene that beggars surreality.

The Illusion's cast of 8, playing 37 separate characters, seems appropriately stunned and uncertain, often to an unexpectedly humorous effect--particularly when they play the actors who visited Laramie. They fumble for questions, grin at each other like contented children, and stare warily at Laramie residents as though any one of them might suddenly pluck out a banjo and beginning finger-picking "Foggy Mountain Breakdown."

To the play's credit, the citizens of Laramie never do end up seeming like so many hateful, homophobic yahoos. They are, in turn, aghast and defensive, repeatedly and forcefully insisting that Shepard's murder was an aberration in Laramie--although this is not a view shared by Laramie's homosexual population, who keep a low profile. "Live and let live? What kind of philosophy is that?" one asks. "It means that if I agree not to tell you I'm a homosexual, you agree not to beat the crap out of me."

All the same, the Illusion's cast doesn't shy away from broad characterizations of their subjects. Kourtney Kass, for example, plays a local Muslim girl as though she were an infuriated suburban teenager shouting at the guests on a daytime talk show, with her arms flung up, hands extended, and her mouth open in a perpetual, tiny, appalled circle. Zach Curtis portrays a local Unitarian minister with mannerisms stolen, he admits, from comedian Ari Hoptman: a bashful smile, a single hand pressed over one half of his face, and a wistful style of speaking. Topher W. Brattain, playing the young bicyclist who discovered Shepard tied to the fencepost, conducts much youthful shrugging and ground-kicking. (One suspects that, were he not speaking, a corner of his sweatshirt would be pressed into his mouth, and he would be sucking on it anxiously.)

These broad splashes of character, thrown on by the actors with the same unaffected ease with which they toss a toothpick in their mouth or a set of granny glasses onto the bridge of their nose, are sometimes quite affecting. Aimee K. Bryant, for example, depicts a young friend of Shepard who decides to confront a Kansas City minister named Fred Phelps--the creator of a Web page at godhatesfags.com, who stood outside the funeral of Shepard, screaming homophobic jeremiads. Shepard's friend dressed herself and a small group of friends as angels and encircled Phelps when he appeared outside the courthouse where the murderers stood trial, muting him with their costume wings. Bryant tells the story with great simplicity while the remaining actors quietly reenact the scene, and it's glorious. I wonder whether this scene will make it into the parodies.

 
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