Sunday, March 22, 2015

Extraordinary 'Laramie Project' at CCBC

The tragedy of gay 21 year-old college student Matthew Shepard’s brutal murder at the hands of two young men in Laramie, Wyoming in October 1998 still pains most decent people.  Hatred by those whose lot in life is to hate was symbolized by the repulsive protests at Matthew’s funeral by the Westboro Baptist Church led by hater-in-chief Fred Phelps.
Cast of CCBC's The Laramie Project  Photo: Leo Heppner
However, through the tireless efforts of Matthew’s family, particularly his mother Judy, and numerous activists, some good came of the heartbreak in that it helped spark the passage of the Matthew Shepard and James Byrd, Jr. Hate Crimes Prevention Act signed by President Obama 11 years after Matthew’s murder.  #hocoarts
A group of people from the New York City-based Tectonic Theater Project led by its artistic director and playwright Moisés Kaufman traveled to Laramie over the course of the next year to conduct a couple of hundred interviews of the town’s denizens in an exhausting effort to chronicle the impact the murder had on Laramie as well as themselves.  As a result, numerous performances of a play based on these interviews have been presented around the country. 

The Laramie Project, as the play is titled, is derived from those direct interviews, news footage, court transcripts and other found text. It reminds audiences about the effect hatred can have on everyday people’s lives whether you’re a direct victim or not.  It isn’t about being gay or straight; it’s about hate and hate crimes.
Gritty and powerful, the play is not preachy though there is that temptation to be so.  Yet, through its message that speaks to the consequences of hate, The Laramie Project performs an invaluable service. 

The Community College of Baltimore County (CCBC) to its credit made The Laramie Project a part of their Community Book Collection whereby students and faculty on three of the campuses—Essex, Dundalk and Catonsville—throughout the academic year highlight and analyze the story behind the play through classroom discussions, assignments and artwork culminating with the brilliant staging of The Laramie Project. 

Moreover, CCBC brought in Judy Shepard to speak last October, held World AIDS Week events including the displaying of the AIDS Quilt in December, the screening of the film Matt Shepard is a Friend of Mine that will take place in April, and The Laramie Project’s Moisés Kaufman who is scheduled to speak on April 28-29.
The performance on March 21 at the College Community Center Theater on the Essex campus was extraordinary and impassioned.  Thanks to a moving rendition of “What Matters” by the New Wave Singers in the theater’s lobby prior to the show, the mood was set perfectly for what was to follow.

Some student productions of plays and musicals tend to have rough edges because of the performers’ inexperience in theatre.  Not this one.  Veteran director Ryan Clark, who also teaches theatre at CCBC and is an artistic associate at Baltimore’s Iron Crow Theatre, guides the young actors and staging of The Laramie Project with great skill, and the results are impressive.   
The ensemble cast showcases their talents in such a way that their futures in theatre, should they go that route, would be quite promising.  They succeed in projecting their voices exceptionally well without the need of mics while proficiently delivering their lines.

The play requires the actors to perform multiple roles and they do it expertly.  Slipping on a sweater or taking one off, donning a cap or a hat and removing them as well as other garments to create a different character, the actors seamlessly and flawlessly execute these changes. 
Director Ryan Clark... guides the young actors and staging of The Laramie Project with great skill, and the results are impressive.   
Each one effectively adjusts his or her voice inflections, mannerisms and accents to reflect a particular person being interviewed as well as being an interviewer.  And each one has a turn in delivering a powerful soliloquy, again showcasing their dramatic props and versatility.  

The characters portrayed, such as the young bicyclist who discovered Matthew’s bloodied body tied to a fence post on the outskirts of Laramie where he said he resembled a scarecrow, the policewoman who brought him in, the sheriff, the doctor tending to Matthew who died in a hospital six days after the attack, the assorted townspeople on both sides of the gay issue, the bartender at the Fireside bar where Matthew was last seen leaving with the murderers, clergy, several lesbians, Fred Phelps, the killers themselves and Matthew’s father Dennis whose testimony in court is arguably the play’s most dramatic moment—all allow the eight-person cast to delve into the various roles, and they deliver in superb fashion.
Aside from their solid acting skills, the movements of the performers under Mr. Clark’s guidance are also outstanding.  To convey scene changes, they shift about the several chairs and tables that adorn the stage with a keen sense of timing and placement.  And in true docudrama form, when a person speaks, another cast member identifies the character by name.

No one member of the cast should be singled out for their performance as they are all tremendous.  In no particular order, the ensemble includes: Ashley Saville, William Meister, Giustino Puliti, Christian Fisher, Lavonne Jones, Thomas P. Gardner, Lashay McMillan and Yakima Lich.  Take your bows; you deserve a standing ovation.
The technical elements considerably add to the play’s texture, making good use of projections on a screen upstage that presents pertinent photographs and art as well as “Moments” as the play progresses.  Scenic and lighting design by Terrie Raulie and the simple costuming by James Fasching help depict the realities contained in this play. 

This minimalism is desirable for a play like The Laramie Project. It creates an atmosphere whereby the actors are really speaking directly to the audience explaining how this tragedy impacted Laramie’s residents.  They are just ordinary people trying to make sense of a gruesome crime that had thrust their community into the spotlight.  It makes people pause to think about our society where hate still exists.
Kudos to all those associated with this outstanding presentation.  Make plans soon to see this great play that is ably directed and performed by young student actors with a skill set that soars beyond expectations. The run is ending soon.

Running time: Two hours and 20 minutes with an intermission.
Advisory: The play contains some profanity and is not suitable for children.

The Laramie Project’s remaining performances are at 10 a.m. March 23 and 1 p.m. March 24 in the College Community Theatre at CCBC Essex, 7201 Rossville Boulevard. Additional performances will be given at 12:45 p.m. March 26 in the Center for the Arts Theatre at CCBC Catonsville, 800 S. Rolling Road and at 12:45 p.m. March 31 in the John E. Ravekes Theatre at CCBC Dundalk, 7200 Sollers Point Road. Tickets are $8 general admission, $5 for students, seniors, and CCBC faculty, staff and alumni. Current CCBC students (with valid ID) are free. Tickets are available from the CCBC Box Office at 443-840-ARTS (2787) or online.

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