Fantastic staging makes The Laramie Project a great show, even when the script’s style of introducing characters becomes a bit repetitive. Entering the theatre was a memorable experience in itself. The traditional use of space has been flipped around by the directors, Benita Tibb and Lucy Shenton, who turn the theatre’s ascending seating into a raked stage. The directors set the atmosphere for the play extremely well by having the cast stare down at the audience from the top rows as the audience trickles in. This ominous feeling of being watched is amplified by the intense lighting pointed directly at the audience. It was uncomfortable—in a good way, considering the play deals with tension between perceived “insiders” and “outsiders.” Being watched – with nowhere to hide from the spotlight – had an immediate, noticeable effect on the audience. There was barely any chatter as we waited for the show to begin, with people speaking in hushed whispers if at all.
The play itself documents the murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay student at the University of Wyoming in Laramie, and the crime’s effect on the town. When the show began, it took a bit for the cast to slip into their characters. The Wyoming accents in particular were a tad shaky, but this might be less noticeable to a British audience, and they became much more convincing as the play picked up energy. Particularly impressive is the cast’s ability to shift between characters. Tom Hilton, who plays the anchoring role of Moises Kaufman, the playwright behind The Laramie Project, is the only cast member to have a single role; the rest tackle five or more, which they handle with skill.
The cast’s excellent ability to distinguish between multiple characters through their physicality and voicing made me wish the script allowed them a bit more flexibility; almost every character transition is introduced with an announcement of his or her name, sounded out by the Moises Kaufman character. This technique becomes a bit clunky, especially by the end of the second act. By that point, we get the gist of who everyone is, and we’re able to tell who’s who by the cast’s shifts in characterization.
A particularly strong moment comes when the cast all take the role of the media swarm that descended on Laramie after the murder; the lights on the cast dim while spotlights come up bright on the audience. The cast point a series of flashlights at the audience and fire off a sensationalist journalistic reports, speaking over each other. I felt judged. It’s as if the cast are demanding to know what we, the audience, felt about the story. This moment, along with the general staging of the play which puts the audience up close and personal with the cast, effectively draws the audience in and makes them part of the story. It’s a very appropriate touch given the play’s focus on perception and judgment.
The dynamic staging of the play more than makes up for any minor flaws in the production. The minimal use of props and the lack of any set is an effective way to have the audience focus on the real meat of the play: the story of Laramie and all its different facets.
**** (4 Stars)