Sunday, September 29, 2013

The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later by Moisés Kaufman, Leigh Fondakowski, Greg Pierotti, Andy Paris, and Stephen Belber

L - R Carl J. Johnson,  Ed F. Martin,  Paul Haitkin - Photo by Win Win Imaging

By Joe Straw

“Wyoming, where men are men and sheep are nervous.” - Author unknown.

My first wife was from Wyoming, and the times I’ve been to Wyoming I’ve heard this expression from her and numerous friends living out there.  Everyone says it.  The phrase may be open to interpretation of your choice. This – just in case you didn’t think the residents of Wyoming had a sense of humor.

The L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center’s Lily Tomlin/Jane Wagner Cultural Arts Center proudly present The Laramie Project:  Ten Years Later written by Moisés Kaufman, Leigh Fondakowski, Greg Pierotti, Andy Paris, and Stephen Belber at the beautiful Davidson/Valentini Theatre in Hollywood and is playing through November 16, 2013.

Jon Imparato, the Artistic Director and Producer, was gracious to show us around this beautiful complex, with art here, paintings there, and, in general a consortium of services for those who need help.  The entire complex projects some really good vibes and the entire staff welcomes everyone with open arms.     

The stage of the Davidson/Valentini sits in the southwest corner of the complex behind two steel gray doors.  And, as you enter the theatre doors, it’s like walking into the state of Wyoming.  The actors, already dressed in character, are sitting around the square box stage in chairs with cushions and a couple of theatre pews for good measure.  The chairs surround three sides most of which are for the audience members to sit.

One gets a down-home feel from the actors when you enter, a polite hello, a smile, and a warm greeting.   In this nice cool room – it is Laramie – the actors in their setting, inhabit their space, keep to their ways, and it feels like Wyoming, a quiet place where kids run free and everyone goes about their own business but…

The Laramie Project:  Ten Years Later is a disturbing look at how the passage of time diminishes an event of American history into a watered-down revisionist commentary to suit political ideology about the town and the people, unless there is a reminder, something, or someone to tell the story, and the Laramie Project: Ten Years Later does just that.  On top of that, the actors give the performances the dignity that this play deserves and they soar from one tragic moment to the next.

The Laramie Project:  Ten Years Later is a captivating play that truly gives you the feel of the time, place, and people that is Laramie, Wyoming.  The fine details of this outstanding production are second to none and the acting and direction leave you breathless.  

The lovely voice of singer-songwriter Johanna Chase starts us off with a very pleasant song, “Morning Comes” by Delta Rae, that brings tears and immediately transports me back to Laramie.  It is a fireside song in which the whole cast joins in and it is a great way to start the play.  

And our play starts with the Tectonic Theatre members going back to Laramie on September 12, 2008 to interview those they had spoken with the first time around from which they constructed “The Laramie Project” and to see how things have changed in Laramie since.  

“I am thinking about the anniversary a lot.  Ten years have passed … that’s a long time.” Beth Loffreda – Professor, University of Wyoming

Beth Loffreda (Ann Noble) suggests things are pretty much the same and not much has changed, and looking out of her window she can see the spot, in the prairie, past Wal-Mart, where Matthew Sheppard was beaten and left to die.

“It was painful for a lot of years.  And I think that the pain actually became so great that people didn’t want to think about it or hear about it anymore.” – Rebecca Hilliker – Theatre Professor, University of Wyoming

L - R Ann Noble, Elizabeth Herron, Paul Haitkin, Christine Sloane - Photo by Win Win Imaging

Traveling from Cheyenne to Laramie, one notices how Laramie is just a speck on the prairie and Moisés Kaufman (Ed F. Martin) notes how much Laramie has changed since October 1998 as he’s barreling down from Highway 80.

Matt Milkelson (Paul Haitkin) says Dick Cheney sold the state to Hallibuton and no one minds, and Jedadia Schultz (Paul Witten) says they have a Chili’s.  People seem to think a lot has change. But really, from the outset, little has changed.

Stephen Belber (Carl J. Johnson) finds his way into town and stops off at a rental car place and finds an agent (Paul Haitkin) with a different opinion about what went on that night.  

“Now if you ask me, I think it was a robbery and that his lifestyle was just an excuse.” – Rental Car Agent

“I’m not sure I understand.  Are you saying it wasn’t a hate crime?” – Stephen Belber

This is the first indication that the dialogue of the town has changed. Meanwhile the members of Tectonic Theatre arrive not knowing what to expect on the tenth anniversary of Matthew Sheppard’s death.   They find that little or nothing is being done to mark the anniversary.  Even Deb Thomsen (Ann Noble) of the Laramie Boomerang grows weary of the topic and says the town is “…moving on from this.”

A sad reminder is evident when only 50 people attend the bench dedication at the University of Wyoming, tucked away, outside the arts and science department with Dennis Sheppard (Ed F. Martin) giving a short speech.

“Can I asked you: did you happen to attend the bench dedication for Matthew Shepard” – Leigh Fondakowski – Member of Tectonic Theatre Project

“Excuse me.” – Boy

“For who?” – Girl

People don’t remember a national story and it doesn’t take long for the story to change to suit a different purpose.

“One thing I heard was that he was a drug dealer and did some bad deals and those guys ended up coming after him…. And then the media came in and said it was ‘ cause he was gay for their own ends.  They took this as a vehicle.” – Student

The ghost of the 20/20 interview comes back to haunt them in which producer Glenn Silber (Paul Haitkin) had an agenda to show the Matthew Sheppard’s slaying was a robbery gone wrong and not a hate crime. It’s too bad he left incriminating evidence with his interviewee.    

“Although Dave is a highly skilled investigator and was the key to solving the crime quickly, he fell into the hate crimes motivation early and our piece will ultimately discredit that flawed theory.” Glenn Silber – Producer 20/20

It’s not enough to re-interview everyone about what happened that night. Rob Debree (Paul Mitten), Lead Investigator for the Albany County Sheriffs Department, and Dave O’Malley (Ed F. Martin), retired Laramie Police Department, hammer home the point of what went on that night. (It’s good to go right to the source.)

Another source is from the prisoners themselves and the Tectonic Members take the initiative to secure those interviews.  

I’ll send Aaron a letter today asking if would be willing to meet with me.” – Greg Pierotti – Member of Tectonic Theatre Project

Both Russell Henderson (Michael Hanson) and Aaron McKinney (Dylan Seaton) agree to meet with Stephen Belber and Greg Pierotti respectively and these are moments that you do not want to miss.  

“Our view.  Laramie is a community, not a ‘project.’” - Boomerang Editor

The actors had multiple roles with the exception of Michael Hanson and Dylan Seaton who alternate playing Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson for various performances. All the characters are critical to moving the play along.

Paul Haitkin was exceptional in his roles but had the dubious honor of playing Rental Car Agent – someone you really don’t want to listen to when wanting the cold hard facts. Still, Haitkin was terrific.

Michael Hanson played Russell Henderson and was exceptional.  There was a collective calm, and composure in his character wanting to get the information to the Tectonic Member to help anyone who might want do to the same thing he did.   Though Henderson is sincere, there is a sinister side to his character, something he’s not saying, and something he wants, unsaid, and that is why Hanson’s work is terrific.

Elizabeth Herron keeps it very real with Marge Murray, Catherine Connolly and Judy Shepard.  She is very down home and reminds me of the people I know from Wyoming.

Carl J. Johnson is a very spirited actor.  His characters were very specific and I particularly liked the Stephen Belber character as he grills Russell Henderson.  And I thought I caught a glimpse of the coughing Marlboro Man from one of the characters. All in all, there’s some very good work done here.

Che Landon - Photo by Win Win Imaging

Che Landon did a fine job as Jim Osborne, Nikki Elder, Romaine Patterson, and Susan Swap among a few other characters.  Each character was unique in their way, male and female, all were well done.

Ed F. Martin plays Moisés Kaufman and gives us a variation of Kaufman’s Venezuelan accent – not quite there but exceptional nevertheless. Martin’s work is nothing short of extraordinary and it’s the little things he does that bring a character to life. Wiping the cookie crumbs vigorously from his fingers as he finished was wonderful.  It’s the little character traits in all of his collective work that makes his performance so enjoyable.  

Ann Noble also does some very fine work as Beth Loffreda, Leigh Fondakowski, Deb Thomson.  One of the interesting things about her performance of Deb Thomson, Editor of the Daily Boomerang, is that Noble is showing us a person with a lot of outside biting pressure, from the community, from the owners of the paper, political leaders with their agendas, and now from the Tectonic Theatre Company on the tenth anniversary.   Noble is a fine actor and her craft is evident.  

Dylan Seaton played Aaron McKinney to perfection.  The character is a man who has lost his way, doesn’t know right or wrong, and can only remember the past only if it suits his purpose.  Seaton is specific with his character choices, and his objective appears secretive. He can’t bother to be honest with the person interviewing him.  His eyes wander from side to side, hiding something, a truth perhaps.  He has an agenda and is not willing to disclose it.  Seaton is very convincing and shows us some really strong character work.    

Christine Sloane does a grand job in the seven characters she portrays.  Her accent was authentic and the manner in which she moved about the stage specific.  She was terrific in very complex roles.

L - R Paul Witten, Paul Haitkin -Photo by Win Win Imaging 

Paul Witten was magnificent as Greg Pierotti.  His performance soared in the interview scene.  Witten is playing an actor/writer who is interviewing a convicted murderer and he is terrified.  There are a lot of things going on here including his memory, which must be superb to remember the details of his interview with a no pen, paper, or tape record to take down the details. (Not sure how that was done in real life but would really like to know.)  

Leslie Stevens is also in the cast but did not perform on this night and Victoria Hoffman is an understudy.

Ken Sawyer, the Director, has directed a masterful show. Most everything worked. His vision seemed appropriate this night.  The one thing I didn’t understand was the set piece in the middle of the room, wooden planks were not in position and were later fitted into place. (Putting the pieces back together, perhaps?)  Maybe if it was “the fence” it would be more haunting and symbolic.

The writers have written a terrific play but the play goes a little off track with Resolution 17 and other things changing or not changing in Wyoming attributed to Matthew Sheppard’s death but oddly enough the performance played better than it read.  

The L.A. Gay & Lesbian Center – Lily Tomlin/Jane Wagner Cultural Arts Center did a masterful job getting this production here and judging from the production values, no expense was spared.  And specifically Jon Imparato, the Producer, deserves a lot of the credit as well.  This was a job well done and story telling at its finest.   

And supporting the play was a huge crew to make sure all the details were perfect. The members of the production crew are as follows:

Assistant Director/Production Stage Manager – Shaunessy Quinn
Set Designer – Robert Selander
Scenic Artist – David Burnham
Lighting Designer – Luke Moyer
Costume Designer – Paula Higgins
Sound Designer – Ken Sawyer
Casting Director – Raul Staggs
Publicity – Ken Werther Publicity
Production Manager – Patricia Sutherland
Dialect Coach – Samara Bay
Stage Manager – Kathleen Jaffe
Assistant Stage Manager – Zackry Barclift
Master Carpenter – Robert Selander
Set Construction – Allison Hill, Michael Samulon
Scenic Painters – Robert Selander, Allison Hill, Michael Samulon
Master Electrician – Adam Earle
Electricians – Adam Earle, Shaunessy Quinn, Michael Samulon
Property Master – Bethany Tucker
House Manager – Joshua Goldman
Light Board Operator – Adam Earle
Sound Board Operator – Shaunessy Quinn, Kathleen Jaffe
Box Office Manager – Katie Pomerantz
Graphics – Ken Sawyer

Run!  Run!  Run!  And take someone who loves Wyoming and its people. 




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