Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: UW-Oshkosh delivers powerhouse ‘Laramie Project’

Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: UW-Oshkosh delivers powerhouse ‘Laramie Project’

The famous play chronicles Matthew Shepard’s death.

OSHKOSH, Wis., (WFRV) – “The Laramie Project” is one of most remarkable chronicles of our time.

The play describes an event that sticks in the craw of America. Productions have been mounted throughout this region in recent years, and the current University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh version is as worthy as any (4½ stars out of 5). Performances continue through Sunday, Nov. 24, in Fredric March Theatre on campus, with info at www.uwosh.edu/theatre.

“The Laramie Project” swallows all around it – the creators, the cast and designers, the audience. Everyone comes away feeling something, whether that’s revulsion, anger, fascination, illumination, curiosity or many points between.

Action traces theater leader Moises Kaufman and the Members of Tectonic Theater Project as they visit Laramie, Wyoming, to find out what happened in the beating and death of gay college student Matthew Shepard and, in the wake of that, what happened among the witnesses, participants, the perpetrators and populace of Laramie.

Jane Purse-Wiedenhoeft of the faculty thoroughly directs the UW-Oshkosh Theatre production. Members of the ensemble cast of 16 play 66 roles, with some characters appearing more than once. A change of a piece of clothing (costume design by Kathleen Donnelly), a shift of language and body English – presto, there’s another character (with all the switching meaning audience members must pay close attention).

The cast

Jon Albright, Amy Baumgardner, Alana Berthiaume, Mark Drees, Nayla Ferreira, Sarah Gorski, Cameron Hitchcock, Joseph King, Brian Markovich, Giovanna Martin, Mallory Radney, Jacob Schaubs, Luke Scorcio, Brittnae Sievert, Bradley Skonecki and Kellie Wambold.

Topics abound – law, religion, human nature, medicine, social interaction, attitudes, ways of life, love, hate, homosexuality, family, procedures, policies, personality, Wyoming, nightlife, law enforcement, HIV positive, the human body in crisis, language, uses of language, accents, bartending, friendship, Laramie, academia, the media, ethnics, journalism, theater, theatricality. And more.

A priest in the play remarks, “You know what is true. Do your best to get it correct.” It’s a thought one hopes that anybody associated with anything involving “The Laramie Project” will attempt.

Talkback sessions follow each UW-Oshkosh Theatre performance. Wednesday night’s included students in the cast voluntarily standing up to share thoughts about their characters. Mark Drees said he tried to place himself in the feelings of Russell Henderson, who tied Matthew Shepard to the remote fence, as Henderson stood awaiting sentencing (two consecutive life sentences). Brian Markovich said he explored the upbringing of Aaron McKinney, who beat Matthew Shepard and fractured his skull, to try to figure out why Aaron McKinney responded the way he did to Matthew Shepard’s advances.

Some of the play includes presentations from real life – a judge reading the arraignment document, taped recordings of witnesses, Aaron McKinney’s confession, people of Laramie and Dennis Shepard’s eloquent statement to the court in which he says he wishes to see Aaron McKinney die but yet asks in the name of his son, Matthew Shepard, that he be spared.


UW-Oshkosh Theatre’s production uses projected images (scenic design by Roy Hoglund) of scenes in and around Laramie, some from response events. Included are the bar where Matthew Shepard, Russell Hitchcock and Aaron McKinney met; the courthouse; the fence on which Matthew Shepard was left; a candlelight vigil while Matthew Shepard clung to life, and the snow-draped scene at Matthew Shepard’s funeral.

Other productions I’ve seen employ acting only, with everything taking place in the mind’s eye. While the play exists on paper in black and white, each production is different by the nature of theater. Different spaces, different performers and different ideas make each production one of a kind. Whatever the approach, “The Laramie Project” is dynamic. It’s hard viewing but worth seeing at least once.

THE VENUE: The 498-seat Fredric March Theatre includes a tradition proscenium (flat front stage) that’s 40 feet wide by 16 feet high. Built in 1971, the theater is located in the heart of the UW-Oshkosh campus. The exterior features a 1970s era UW campus architectural style that embraces cement, in this case the cement reminiscent of geometric trees supporting a flat roof on the glass-enclosed entry and lobby. The interior features honeycombed red-brick walls and a slightly arcing seating area with no center aisle, with a general impression of closeness to the stage.

THE PERSON: Fredric March was a famous actor who was born in 1897 in Racine. March had no direct connection with UW-Oshkosh prior to the naming of the theater. He earned the honor due to the respect for his level of performance on Broadway and film – and being from Wisconsin. March and his wife attended the grand opening. March earned best actor Oscars for “Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde” and “The Best Years of Our Lives.” He earned three Oscar nominations.

REST OF THE SEASON: Theme: “Voices of Perseverance”: “Bus Stop” by Willliam Inge, Feb. 12-16; “An Evening of One-Acts” by students, March 6-8 in Experimental Theatre; “Antigone” by Sophocles, April 23-27.

You may email me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air features on WFRV at 6:45 p.m. Thursdays and every other Sunday between 6 and 8 a.m. (usually around 7:45 a.m.)

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