The Iron Crow Theatre in Baltimore put on an amazing and gut-wrenching performance of The Laramie Project to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s death. Shepard, a gay man who was brutally robbed, beaten and tortured to death in Laramie, Wyo., would have been 42 this year.
The show is essentially a transcription of many interviews with locals about the murder and its consequences — it’s a piece of theatrical journalism. Moisés Kaufman, the playwright, asks viewers to grapple with how a state, whose motto is “Equal Rights,” could have produced criminals as callous as Shepard’s assailants. As the name indicates, Kaufman spent a significant amount of time in the town of Laramie itself — supposedly one of the most liberal settlements in the entire state.
Jonas David Grey and Kecia A. Campbell put on particularly strong performances. Campbell, who plays the part of Reggie, a police officer who has been exposed to AIDS, captivates the audience.
Iron Crow’s production is extraordinary both in its style and emotion. Eight actors perform as nearly 100 different characters. A rotating narrator, without distracting the audience, announces the name of each character.
Each actor quickly and effectively transforms into many different roles, switching voices and costumes to make each character distinguishable. They often do this several times in a very short period of time.
Grey’s transformations were the most extreme. He first had to become Westboro Baptist Church Pastor Fred Phelps, a man who leads his church to picket the funerals of soldiers and members of the LGBTQIA+ community. Afterwards he assumes the role of a Catholic priest who emphasizes a need for love and truth. Pastor Phelps disgusts the audience, while the Catholic priest pulls them in. The result is, admittedly, somewhat jarring, but it shows off the wide array of characters Grey is able to depict.
The characters portrayed reveal a wide variety of views on homosexuality. Most claimed that Laramie has a “live and let live” philosophy, which suggests that Laramie’s queer community is allowed to live peacefully. Shepard’s death proved otherwise. Some other subjects, particularly those who worked at the University of Wyoming, claimed that many of Laramie’s residents were openly hostile towards LGBTQIA+ members.
In an interview with The News-Letter, actress Johnna Leary, admitted that she often disagrees with her characters’ views. However, she believes that it is necessary to show the truth, exactly how individuals become who they are.
“We’re playing so many different characters in the show, and a lot of them, a lot of mine, have totally opposite viewpoints of what I actually think. Jonas definitely has a lot, too. But just realizing that their experiences, their upbringing, their community, everything that made that person the way they are, is also important,” Leary said.
Leary also stressed how important it was for the actors to do accurate research.
“This required a lot of preparation because we are portraying real people,” Leary said. “They’re still living, they still see this show around the country and we’re saying their actual words that they said when that happened. So it’s really important to be accurate.”
Actor William Goblirsch Jr. described the challenges of deciding how to best portray the roles.
“Some of these characters, you can find more things and use them. [With] some of these people, you’re making this up completely. On the other hand, that’s a more technical, crafty thing. But on the other hand, you have to fill these people with life. They [all] have a heart,” Goblirsch said.
The novel component of the show is not the actors’ interpretations of the script. I believe that they don’t stray from the original script for the most part, but this is not a problem — the script is the best representation of the people whom Kaufman interviewed.
There is a movie version of The Laramie Project, which Kaufman also wrote and Iron Crow’s theatrical version occasionally echoes. In doing so, both versions faithfully represent the real people.
The show’s director, John Knapp, emphasized the importance of his mission: He wants people from all walks of life to attend the show and gain perspective on different points of view. The environment was extremely welcoming to all attendees regardless of their backgrounds.
Through extremely compelling performances, Iron Crow’s production shines light on a significant event in LGBTQIA+ history.article here