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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: Large-scale ‘The Laramie Project’ enveloping in Green Bay

Critic At Large

University of Wisconsin-Green Bay Theatre and Dance

Program cover.

GREEN BAY, Wis. (WFRV) – Some plays just don’t quit.

One is “The Laramie Project,” a kind of documentary that won’t go away because of…

+ The story, with twists.

+ The reactions of people, which go all over.

+ The theatrical style, crammed with detail.

+ The reality, and the scope thereof.

+ Controversy, piled deep.

At the center is Matthew Shepard, who was gay, and died in October 1998 after being beaten and left on a wooden fence on the outskirts of Laramie, Wyoming.

The play is about crime, homosexuality, the medical profession, law enforcement, hatred, a family’s love in a storm, wide-open spaces, shadings of truth, the media (as a mob, yet fact-presenting), government, AIDS (Matthew Shepard tested HIV-positive), the court system, religion and faith, sociology, small-town life, university life, bar life style and writing a play in a journalistic way. The language is sometimes rough, though character-driven. Humor? Yes, but dark.

University of Wisconsin-Green Bay students take off gloves and come out swinging in the Theatre and Dance department production that is available online until May 3.

Scene from UWGB’s “The Laramie Project.” (Warren Gerds screenshot)

The production is stifled by the wearing of clear masks for COVID-19 reasons. Voices are muffled a bit, but the power of the play and story comes through.

Because a group of theatrical researchers interviewed a full range of townspeople and captured a scope of personalities and beliefs in what was an international story, “The Laramie Project” is unforgettable.

The thing is a 10,000-piece puzzle – so many shapes, so complex, so big.

And interesting. Guided by director Rebecca Stone Thornberry – who in a preview program notes that she saw the original production in New York – cast members are clearly absorbed in portraying multiple characters each. Their people range from voices of reason to fire breathers.

Some moments are amusing. Like this from a Muslim woman speaking to one of the theater folk: “You’re going to be in a play in New York acting like us? That’s so weird.”

Many moments are chilling. One is this from a Laramie resident who comes to a realization that the perpetrators of the horrible beating are home grown: “Well, it’s pretty clear that we do grow children like that here.”

The play arc includes the discovery of Matthew Shepard on the fence, the first police officer on the scene, a collage of voices in the community, medical reports to the demise and the individual trials of Russell Henderson and Aaron McKinney. Very much more is in between.

The performance floor is a map of Laramie. The most common prop is a chair. Often a scene starts as a wide view, and then the character is shown up close when he or she speaks. Up-close views heighten the effect of what’s said.

This is the second UWGB production of the year focusing on a historical event with widespread impact.  The first was “Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992” – the Rodney King story.

In theater circles, “The Laramie Project” is a title that draws awe and respect. To put it on is a substantial undertaking. Though it has rough edges, the UWGB production is impressive for its CLOUT.

***

Creative: Playwrights – Moisés Kaufman and members of Tectonic Theater Project; director – Rebecca Stone Thornberry; scenic designer and sound designer – John Thornberry; properties designer and assistant scenic designer – Isabelle Austgen*; lighting designer and technical director – Dinesh Yadav; assistant technical director – David Cook; costume coordinator – Madison Sagen; dramaturgs – McKenzie Thompson and Thomas Campbell; production stage manager – John Thornberry; assistant stage manager – Brandon Otten; master electrician and assistant lighting design – Halley Lau; light board operator – Bekah Witte; costume crew – Aubrey Stein*; run crew – Ally Swigert; videographer – Chris Opper; assistant videographer – Charrey Honkanen; video editor – Anya Kopischke; managing director of theater productions – Rebecca Stone Thornberry; executive production assistant and graphic design – Tricia Adams; university communications liaison – Sue Bodily

Cast

+ Andy Paris, Jedediah Schultz, Doug Laws, Matt Mickelson, Dr. Cantway, Governor Geringer, Philip Dubois, Shannon, Kerry Drake, Russell Henderson – Conner Andersen

+ Rebecca Hilliker, Waitress, Kristen Price, Reggie Fluty, Newsperson – Kylie Heisz

+ Greg Pierotti, Sgt. Hing, Phil LaBrie, Father Roger Schmit, Rulon Stacey, Detective Sgt. Rob Debree, Jonas Slonaker Cory J. O’Donnell

+ Stephen Belber, Doc O’Connor, Matt Galloway, Bill McKinney, Conrad Miller, Andrew Gomez, Fred Phelps, Judge – Brandon Otten

+ Anonymous Friend, Jon Peacock, Russell Henderson’s Mormon Home Teacher, Aaron McKinney, Aaron Kreifels, Judge, Newsperson – Patrick Parks

+ Zackie Salmon, Leigh Fondakowski, Alison Mears, Romaine Patterson, Tiffany Edwards – Aisa Rogers

+ Moisés Kaufman, Stephen Mead Johnson, Murdock Cooper, Dennis Shepard, Harry Woods, Cal Rerucha, Jeffrey Lockwood, Priest, Gil Engen – Sean Stalvey

+ Amanda Gronich, Trish Steger, Baptist Minister, Shadow, Newsperson, Foreperson – Alexandra Smith

+ Barbara Pitts, April Silva, Catherine Connolly, Zubaida Ula, Sherry Aanenson, Lucy Thompson – Olivia Smith

+ Baptist Minister’s Wife, Email Writer, Jen, Sherry Johnson, Eileen Engen, Marge Murray, Newsperson, Bailiff – Jenny Witt

Running time: Two hours, 27 minutes

Viewing access: Extended to 4 p.m. May 3: www.uwgb.edu/theatre

Program access: https://issuu.com/uwgbmusic/docs/laramie_program

Preview program access: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mAeg4f_l3ac. Topics include discussion of verbatim theater, making of this production and social justice and the arts.

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