A challenging play and an ambitious undertaking for any company, The Laramie Project is the response of playwright Moisés Kaufman to the 1998 murder of Laramie-local Matthew Shepherd – a young gay student at the University of Wyoming – and to the media frenzy that followed. He took a group of actors to Laramie who, over the course of the following year, conducted hundreds of interviews with the town’s inhabitants, searching for the complexity and humanity that the sensationalist press coverage had missed.
A cast of ten actors (playing over fifty different characters) performs transcripts from these interviews, extracts from the actors’ journals, and the court cases of the two young murderers. Describing a production as “ambitious” is often a backhanded compliment; a euphemism for a production that has bitten off more than it can chew. However, I use it to describe The Laramie Project in the best sense: challenging, innovative, exciting, and not to be missed.
Though the script is fantastic, and full of wonderfully revealing lines, it would be easy for a production to be confusing and incoherent, or indulgent and insensitive. Benita Tibb and Lucy Shenton’s production falls into neither of these traps. A cleverly constructed preview introduces the characters through a mixture of script extracts and improvisation. My fellow previewer and I are sat behind a table and faced with a panel of actors lending the performance the air of a job interview. This, combined with Tom Hilton’s piercingly intense gaze as he gives Kaufman’s narration, deliberately creates an atmosphere of discomfort. The audience is put in the position of the mercilessly scrutinised townspeople, an effect that the directors plan to magnify in the real performance with inventive staging. I won’t spoil the surprise here but, rest assured, this will not be your standard audience-actor set up. (Audience participation-phobes needn’t panic, though; you won’t actually have to do anything.)
Central to the play’s success is a strong cast of versatile actors. They must tread the fine line between not sufficiently differentiating their characters and not turning them into caricatures. The directors are well aware of this fact, and have used hours of improvisation including a workshop with the Oxford Imps to ensure that every character is a real and rounded person whose lives the actors can convincingly step into.
Tanner Efinger merits special praise for this. He inhabits every role with subtlety and truthfulness, transforming with ease into each new character, from a gay New York actor to an elderly Wyoming rancher. Though some of the rest of the cast have yet to quite find this delicate balance as naturally as Efinger, every single actor is impressive.
With two more weeks of rehearsal under the insightful direction of Tibb and Shenton to deepen their understanding of their characters and master a challenging array of accents, they are sure to deliver powerful performances on opening night.
The Laramie Project runs in the Simpkins Lee Theatre from the 28th of February to the 3rd of March.
Tickets are available from £5.
PHOTO/ Vicki Lampard