- Allan Byrne (right), Laura Perrotta, and Scott Plate, in a tense scene from The Laramie Project.
A couple of plays opened on the most horrific week since Pearl Harbor, but neither offers much in the way of frivolous distraction. Both works, taken from painful historical events, make audiences privy to a rank world of mayhem, homophobia, and class distinctions.
Moisés Kaufman's The Laramie Project concerns the ramifications of 21-year-old college student Matthew Shepard's brutal murder at the hands of two young gay-bashers and how it subsequently unraveled the entire fabric of the small town of Laramie, Wyoming. Dobama's tautly directed production emerges as a painful but edifying examination of the complications of human interaction.
A few years back, Kaufman pasted together Gross Indecency out of Oscar Wilde's trial transcripts, making for a fascinating study of 19th-century homophobia and a genius's self-martyrdom. For The Laramie Project, Kaufman and his troupe, the Tectonic Theatre Project, traveled to Laramie six times over a year and a half. They conducted hundreds of interviews with everyone from lesbian student to town sheriff to conflicted priest, creating a mosaic out of the town's reactions.
Even if you don't know much about Shepard's murder or the fact that he became a symbol of homosexual victimization, you'll be gripped by this work's minute examination of the lives, peccadilloes, and idiosyncrasies of the witnesses, bystanders, cohorts, and loved ones who were interviewed. These emerge as a telling portrait of small-town America. The main flaw is, while we get to know the massive cast of supporting figures, the killers and Shepard remain shadowy cameos. As effective as the play is, it's like King Lear without the king.
In the work's two and a half hours, we are taken through the bars, churches, universities, and back alleys of a Norman Rockwell haven to discover the Edward Hopper alienation that lies underneath.
We encounter the bartender who's feeling guilty because he didn't somehow prevent the frail student from leaving with those two dangerous ruffians; the dedicated female cop who may have contracted AIDS from being spattered with Shepard's blood; and the closeted homosexual, afraid to be gay in cowboy country ("I wasn't prepared for the magnitude with which some people hate"). In the evening's most powerfully staged scene, a group of gay militants don angels' wings and encircle a homophobic minister, drowning out his anti-gay invective with hymns. Most moving of all is the catharsis we feel when the victim's father transcends his own hate by not asking for the death penalty for his son's killers.
All this is in the characters' own words, as collected by the original troupe. Here, in an interesting double illusion, eight actors portray the original company members re-creating the townspeople they interviewed.
Joel Hammer once again displays his uncanny knack for brilliantly unobtrusive direction. He has the ability to bring integrity to everything he touches. The adept cast -- Scott Plate, Laura Perrotta, Kirk Brown, Allan Byrne, Todd Krispinsky, Pandora Robertson, Jeanne Task, and Sabrina Gibbar -- creates a multitude of quick character sketches that are compelling in their humor and detail.
One way we can begin to comprehend the earth-shattering tragedy the country has been put through is to try to take in this crystalline re-creation of a far more private hell.
Anyone who has a predilection for the sadomasochistic, tongue-in-cheek sexual hysteria of Ken Russell, the Marquis de Sade, and certain examples of art-house porno such as Caligula should also have a great fondness for Naomi Wallace's 1997 play One Flea Spare. Like those works, here is a play that tries to disguise deviance as profundity.
It's 1665 London and the bubonic plague is in full force. The social life of William and Darcy Snelgrave (Andrew Narten and Rasheryl McCreary) has been severely curtailed. Their servants have died of the disease, and, just as ennui is about to set in, a mysterious 12-year-old girl named Morse (Courtney Schloss) and a testosterone-charged young sailor called Bunce (Sean Sullivan) pop up in the household. Because of the quarantine, they must live together for 28 days. From this situation, the playwright constructs a torrid metaphor for power and corruption. The decadent Mr. Snelgrave lasciviously taunts the sailor with a debauched game wherein he allows Bunce to try on his shoes. This is one of those plays where everything is subtext. The dialogue is double-talk for Snelgrave's ardent desire to be ravished by this hunky symbol of the working class. Meanwhile, Morse is allowing a street guard to suck her toes in exchange for sweets, and the madame of the house, for mysterious reasons, refuses to remove her gloves.
Cleveland Public Theatre's production, directed with great flair by Randy Rollison, is uniformly resplendent and slightly obscene, bringing to mind an opium dream. The cast nearly burns up their period clothes with sexual combustion. In fact, the whole experience lingers in the mind, sometimes as decadent delight and at other times with the pugnacious stink of Limburger cheese.