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Theater Review:

"THE LARAMIE PROJECT" at Next Theatre

BY LUCIA MAURO

It’s not uncommon for a large- or small-scale event to inspire a play. But the resulting theatrical work most likely will be reduced to a few key characters or feature different personae altogether or dramatize in metaphoric fashion mainly the ideas that arise from a specific incident. New York-based playwright Moises Kaufman and members of his Tectonic Theater Project, on the other hand, transformed themselves into investigative reporters, sociologists and historians when they spent nearly two years interviewing residents of Laramie, Wyoming shortly after the brutal murder in 1998 of gay university student Matthew Shepard.

Yet instead of a step-by-step documentation of the crime, they delved into the attitudes of a small-town community to examine the issue from every possible angle. The culmination of their risky and enlightening efforts is "The Laramie Project," a point/counterpoint exploration of a town’s response to the killing in which ten actors portray themselves, together with police officers, relatives, doctors, clergy, the perpetrators and those who were the last to see Shepard alive before he left a local bar with two questionable men.

Evanston’s Next Theatre, closely associated with heated social-justice plays, presents the Chicago-area premiere of "The Laramie Project" – a balanced, non-sensationalistic look at society’s mores and attitudes toward alternative lifestyle choices, retribution, the death penalty and what it means to be human.

Early on in director Kate Buckley’s rhythmically meticulous and earnest production, it appears that the playwright is too self-conscious about his process – letting audiences know how the interviews were conducted and how they affected the participating artists. But it soon becomes clear that such a hyper-awareness of Kaufman’s method gives this work a higher dimension – demonstrating how artists can adapt humane journalistic techniques to the courageous act of "prying into a town’s unraveling."

The effect is like witnessing an elaborate theatrical quilting B in which various townspeople contribute a patch of perspective to form a massive cloth of viewpoints. That cloth can be both a warm blanket and a shroud – further underscoring the co-existence of evil and compassion in the world. The actors (who portray the original cast and the people they interviewed) reflect with trepidation and fortitude on their journal entries and the ordinary citizens who unexpectedly found themselves living in a once unknown town now defined by a crime that has come to be viewed as a martyrdom.

Hannah Dworkin, Jenny McKnight, Russell Hardin, Jesse Weaver, Kelly Van Kirk, Matt Kozlowski, Ana Sferruzza and Susan Felder comprise the outstanding and malleable cast. They weave in and out of other characters’ skin – subtly yet ferociously illustrating how a group of average Americans was forced to confront their prejudices, back up their arguments and question their once-smug beliefs.

Most admirable, the playwrights and his creative collaborators do not weigh the work heavily on either side of the core issue, except to show that knowledge and understanding will forever be the antidotes to societal violence -- a particularly necessary thought during these uncertain times.

Rick Paul’s deceptively simple scenic design of tumbleweeds and broken wooden fences (a fence being the material inadvertently used for Shepard’s "crucifixion") paired with Jaymi Lee Smith’s shadowy lighting, seep into one’s conscience – suggesting the gaps that still exist in the arena of human empathy.

"The Laramie Project," a live documentary structured abstractly, is role playing taken to artistically provocative heights. It’s also a propulsive dramatic model for theater artists who believe they can truly shape a better future. •

"The Laramie Project" runs through December 16 at Next Theatre, 927 Noyes St. at the Noyes Cultural Arts Center, Evanston. Tickets: $20-$28. Call 847-475-1875.

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