Theatre owes much of its beauty to its many possibilities and the power that each can hold. The Laramie Project seems to be one of those productions aiming to take full advantage of this beauty, and it certainly has the potential to. With more of a documentary feel to it than a piece of drama, the play follows the aftermath of the real-life 1998 murder of Wyoming student Matthew Shepard, victim of a gay hate crime. The play’s writer, Moisés Kaufman, who features in it, travelled to the town of Laramie shortly after the killing with his theatre company, and together they recorded over two hundred interviews. The play consists of these interviews with Laramie residents, from the barista in the local coffee shop, to the Baptist minister who supported homophobic protests at Shepard’s funeral.
Most productions of The Laramie Project use a simple, almost non-existent, stage. Actors sit on stools and take it in turns to talk. Instead, the directors of this Oxford production seem keen to introduce more movement and character interaction into the play, along with some unusual ideas to make the audience feel more involved, and a plan to perform the play with “reverse staging” where it is the actors who occupy the raked seating.
Whether all this might just be the directors being overly keen to use artistic licence on a play which ordinarily gives little room for it remains to be seen, but one suspects that this two-hour performance will be carried by its actors regardless. The play features an incredible sixty characters being played by eight members, which would be a challenge for any thespian, yet the characterisation is impressive. Characters quickly came across as well-structured, multi-layered, and very believable. Nevertheless, distinguishing between individuals in a play where dialogue moves swiftly from one to another and the small-town accents are often similar may be difficult, and it will be interesting to see how the company will aid the audience in this, particularly visually.
Kaufman wrote the play in order to show the true values of the town of Laramie. Verbatim theatre can feel hectoring and overly dependent on direct address sometimes. If the actors perform with as much friendliness as they did in the preview, The Laramie Project will more likely feel like a discussion to which we are invited into. Make no mistake: it will be slick, well-performed, and intriguing; but this is an epic of a play and it is up to the cast and directors to ensure the audience remain involved and moved throughout.