The UA Department of Theatre presented the emotionally charged “The Laramie Project,” the powerful true story of an act of hate and the love that flourished in its wake, last weekend. The remote production was marked by a combination of captivating stylistic choices and unfortunate oversights.
“The Laramie Project,” a uniquely written and formatted play, tells the story of one of the world’s most infamous hate crimes, and the shockwaves it sent through the victim’s community and beyond. An example of verbatim theatre, the play is an expansive set of snippets from real-life conversations. The play’s writers, members of the Tectonic Theater Project, conducted the interviews with residents of Laramie, Wyoming, following the 1998 torture and murder of local gay man Matthew Shepard.
The UADT production’s opening weekend was spread out over the course of three evenings, with one act each night followed by discussions with cast and crew members. The show features a cast of 11 actors portraying more than sixty total characters.
The ensemble did an excellent job of adapting to the unique and challenging situation presented by at-home Zoom performances. They used their acting chops and lightning-fast off-camera changes of clothing or accessories to help delineate their many characters.
Unfortunately though, not all the actors had developed clear characterization for each of their roles, so when the physical changes were minor it was often difficult to tell who they were portraying at a given moment. Overall, I would have liked to see more distinct, developed characters with clear differences like varied accents, inflections or body language.
Two of the cast members who excelled in this regard were Tanner Passmore, a senior, and Leah Smith, a second-year graduate student. Passmore and Smith gave powerful standout performances as their respective key characters, police officer Reggie Fluty and Catholic priest Father Roger Schmit.
The design team also did great work on the production, and clearly made the best of a bad situation. The designers deserve kudos for working with the actors to plan their use of the light fixtures, locations, props and clothing items already in their own homes to create the desired visuals. It couldn’t have been an easy task, nor could it have been pleasant to deal with the cancellation of the in-person production on which they were working so hard. The mockups of lighting, scenery and costume designs that the team presented during the post-show discussions were simple but beautiful, and hopefully will be brought to life in a real theater one day.
The most disappointing thing about the show was that it felt like the production under-utilized Zoom, the challenging but fascinating medium in which it was presented. Rather than performing the play as if the characters were actually together doing in-person interviews, I would have liked to see the director, cast and designers lean into the inherent video chat vibe of the performance. Because the play is a series of intimate vignettes anyway, I thought it presented a golden opportunity to perform the show as if the characters were actually conversing over Zoom.
This could have opened the door to additional features for aiding the viewer in distinguishing characters, such as labeling the actors’s video windows with the names of the people they were portraying. While the narrator sometimes signaled a character switch by verbally introducing a person before they spoke, this was inconsistent, and formatting the show like a big group video chat could have helped with clarity.
I know that video chat services like Zoom did not exist in 1999, but neither did iPhones. There are multiple scenes in which the actors hold up their phones to their cameras and use their phone flashes to mimic the flashing of news cameras at conferences, so suspension of disbelief is already required. I think audience members might be able to more thoroughly appreciate the gravity and socially relevant message of “The Laramie Project” if they aren’t distracted by confusion over the characters’s identities.
“The Laramie Project” is an important play with a powerful message of tolerance and mutual respect that people desperately need to see, even now, twenty-two years after Shepard’s murder. But if you watch UADT’s production, one should make sure to pay very close attention, because if you blink, you might miss it.
"The Laramie Project" runs through Saturday. Zoom admission is free, but reservations are required.