Hmm, this sounded interesting — The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later at Chance Theater. Surely the sequel to a production as momentous as The Laramie Project should be seen, but as far as I know, the only professional reading of this particular sequel in Greater LA was at a one-night benefit at Broad Stage in 2009.
Yet as I considered making the trip to the far eastern reaches of Anaheim, I realized that I didn’t actually remember the details of The Laramie Project itself well enough to see the sequel without refreshing my memory about the original.
Normally, in a situation like this, I might try to read or at least sample the script of the original or watch the HBO movie, or — if I don’t have the time for those — at least find and read an online synopsis. But Chance made my choices easier — and its own task twice as challenging.
Chance is producing the original along with the sequel in repertory. Fortunately for Los Angelenos who might not want to face weekday traffic to Anaheim, the company scheduled performances of the original on Saturday afternoons and performances of the sequel on Saturday evenings.
So I devoted about 10 hours on Saturday to Chance’s Laramie productions (including travel time and the break between shows). I don’t regret a single minute of it.
First, at the matinee, I was astonished by the continuing power of the original Laramie Project. When I first saw it in 2002 at the Colony Theatre, I was moved, but I certainly didn’t expect that I would be even more moved by it 11 years later.
As you probably know, The Laramie Project is an example of documentary theater — it is drawn from the research Tectonic Theater Project did in Laramie, Wyoming in the aftermath of the murder of Matthew Shepard in 1998. Like other forms of journalism, you might assume that examples of documentary theater would, in time, feel like “yesterday’s news”. But that hasn’t happened yet with The Laramie Project.
The most obvious reason for this is that the struggle for gay rights in the United States is still very much with us. We might even be on the verge of its biggest breakthrough moment, depending on what the Supreme Court decides soon in two different cases.
But a less obvious reason is that a revival of documentary theater, unlike a reading of an old magazine or newspaper article, is being actively re-created, not simply reproduced, in front of our eyes at each new performance — and in this case, by a company of actors who had no role in the show’s original creation.
The eight actors on the Chance stage bring remarkable attention and conviction to their dozens of roles, guided by director Oanh Nguyen. Not for a moment does this production have a been-there-done-that feeling.
At the end of the nearly-three-hour original (including two intermissions), I was burning with curiosity about what happened next to the people whose real words I had just heard. I often feel this way after encounters with fictional characters, but seldom do I have the opportunity to slake my curiosity two hours later by watching the same actors perform many of the same roles in the sequel.
It’s possible to see the two parts in reverse order — the sequel on Friday night, the original on Saturday afternoon, for example. Unless you’re already very familiar with the original, I would discourage this reverse sequence because of the factor I just mentioned — most of us want to find out happened later after we find out what happened earlier. Also, the sequel is shorter by about 45 minutes, which you might appreciate at the end of your experience more that you would halfway through it.
At the same time, it’s undeniable that the original contains the climax of the saga, in terms of emotional impact. If you want to save your tears for the last part of your overall experience, you’re likelier to shed them in the original than you are in the sequel, and therefore the reverse schedule might have some appeal to a few veterans of seeing (or being in) previous Laramie productions.
But no one should interpret that last comment to mean that the sequel is dry or uninvolving. When the Tectonic interviewers/actors returned to Laramie in 2008, they found indications that the passage of time had begun to chip away at the conclusion — based on the statements by the killers — that homophobia was the most significant motivation for the crime against Matthew Shepard. People who had come of age in recent years had only hazy notions of what had happened, and a much disputed 2004 episode of 20/20 had reinforced the interpretation that the crime was more about a robbery and drugs than about bigotry against homosexuals.
20/20 had conducted jailhouse interviews of the killers to buttress its report. So the Tectonics arranged their own jailhouse interviews of Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, and excerpts from these interviews — although they weren’t conducted in Laramie — make up the climax of the sequel.
These interviews return the focus to the killers’ homophobia, but they also serve to amplify the differences between the two men to an extent that was felt only in a limited way in the original Laramie Project. The Tectonics and their leader Moisés Kaufman deserve credit for striving to illuminate the killers and their motivations, along with Henderson’s grandmother and a priest who had remained a spiritual advisor to McKinney. These explorations solidly remove Laramie Project from suspicions of being a simplistic piece of agitprop.
In Chance’s production, Brandon Sean Pearson as McKinney and James McHale as Henderson (and also as McKinney’s interrogator Greg Pierotti) provide persuasive, fascinating glimpses of the killers and their contrasting personalities and feelings of remorse (Henderson has a lot of it, McKinney not so much).
The sequel also illustrates at least one surprisingly encouraging piece of post-Matthew Shepard news from Wyoming, in the form of an unexpected vote in the state legislature in neighboring Cheyenne.
Those who haven’t seen either Laramie Project should understand that although it might be known in shorthand as “the Matthew Shepard play,” it really isn’t about Matthew Shepard. He isn’t one of the many characters who’s directly depicted in it.
Instead, the project is a depiction of communities — primarily the community of Laramie but secondarily the community of the Tectonic actors themselves — and how they deal with the crisis of Shepard’s murder. This mission requires a lot more complexity than a play about Shepard himself, and a lot more time. This wide-angle viewpoint, which is beautifully enhanced by Joe Holbrook’s video, Fred Kinney’s set and KC Wilkerson’s lights, is well worth spending most of a day in Anaheim Hills.
**All The Laramie Project and The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later photos by Casey Long.
The Laramie Project and The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later, Chance Theater, 5552 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim. The Laramie Project: Thu 8 pm, Sat 3 pm, Sun 2 pm. The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later: Fri 8 pm, Sat 8 pm, Sun 7 pm. Through May 19. www.chancetheater.com. 714-777-3033.
The night before I saw the two Laramies, I caught one of the final performances of Rattlestick Theatre’s production of Slipping, by Daniel Talbott, at the Lillian Theatre in Hollywood. It’s another play that examines a young gay man’s experience in mid-America – but in this case, it’s Iowa, not Wyoming, and the character is a recent arrival there, in the wake of a move prompted by his father’s death in San Francisco and his mother’s decision to take a teaching job in Iowa.
Unexpectedly, Talbott makes the young man’s experience in Iowa look more sustainable than his experience in the Bay Area, where some of the scenes are set in this chronologically fractured play. The contrast is most apparent in the difference between this high school’s student’s sexual partners.
In California, he’s involved in a depressing affair with a big and potentially violent kid who’s deeply ashamed of his homosexual feelings, while in Iowa, he attracts the attention of a previously straight but curious, open-minded and non-threatening classmate. This difference is refreshingly unpredictable but also occasionally implausible.
But then this character’s problems go far beyond the temperaments of the guys he beds. They also extend to his resentment of the unseen guys his mother is now bedding, as well as his generally unresolved grief over his father’s death. The play sometimes feels like a psychological case study told in an unnecessarily confusing style. But the ending isn’t as grim as you might expect and almost serves as an illustration of the “it gets better” slogan — or, at least, “it might get better.”
By the way, after much attention to the casting of the recent Broadway sensation Seth Numrich in the central role, he ended up leaving the cast after only a week in order to take a job in London. It certainly looks as if he and the producers must have known about this in advance. Numrich’s exit was announced only four days after the play opened on April 13 and his replacement Wyatt Fenner took over the role on April 21.
Fenner certainly appeared to be well-versed in the role by the time I saw him last Friday. On one level I’m glad I saw Fenner, who ended up performing the role more times than Numrich had, but in another sense I couldn’t help but raise my eyebrows over what looked like an example of bait and switch.
Don’t let my discussion of The Laramie Project and Slipping give the impression that theater these days invariably tends to depict gay characters as victims of violence and abuse.
In Beau Willimon’s just-closed The Parisian Woman at South Coast Repertory, knowledge of a same-sex affair is used as a weapon in the brass-knuckled politics of contemporary Washington. But the people (who would possibly be called bisexual, as opposed to gay) who are involved in this affair do not appear to suffer much from its use as a tactic. In fact, one of them in this case is the one who wields the weapon and therefore gains a desired result.
In Allen Barton’s Years to the Day, at Beverly Hills Playhouse, one of two men who meet for coffee comes out as gay to his longtime straight friend. But there is no competition here as to which character comes off as more neurotically tied up in knots — it’s the straight guy.
The play also includes cryptic references to a third friend, but the script leaves hanging questions of what happened to him and what caused it. It sounded as to me as if Barton plans on writing a sequel. Years to the Day is no Laramie Project, but I wouldn’t mind seeing a sequel to it, too. It wouldn’t take nearly as much time for me to drive to Beverly Hills as it would for me to drive to Anaheim Hills.
Years to the Day, Beverly Hills Playhouse, 254 S. Robertson Ave., Beverly Hills. Fri-Sat 8 pm, Sun 7 pm. Through June 2. www.skylighttheatrecompany.com. 702-582-8587.