The Wicked Stage: SPP and the Laramie Project
Holy shit. In December and January, I wrote two columns critical of the San Pedro Playhouse’s lackluster programming, which tends towards warhorses of the “family-friendly” musical theater canon. Last week, newly-appointed President Asia Ciaravino announced that they were scrapping three previously announced productions for next year—“older” musicals like South Pacific and Will Rogers Follies—and aiming for three San Antonio premieres, including (at long last!) Spring Awakening.
This is great news: if The Wicked Stage had a budget, we’d send a bouquet to Ms. Ciaravino’s doorstep a.s.a.p. In another press release, the Playhouse indicated that it was also exploring the hiring of Equity actors (hooray!); the creation of a true black-box space (double hooray!); and improvements in marketing and outreach (I’m fresh out of hoorays). So just when we’d given up on ever seeing major changes at the Playhouse, last week’s announcements lifted The Wicked Stage’s spirits considerably. Perhaps the 100th anniversary of the Playhouse will be momentous, indeed.
But back to art. In San Antonio, Spring Awakening has been sadly conspicuous by its absence, but it joins any number of well-regarded American works that never make it to San Antonio. So last weekend, I headed up to Austin’s Zach Scott Theater to catch The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later, which also has yet to see a San Antonio production (although it would fit in nicely at, say, the Jump-Start).
I wasn’t entirely sure what to expect: reviews and previews sometimes described the play as a sequel or epilogue to the original Laramie Project, but neither moniker exactly inspired confidence in the evening’s artistic merits. (I mean, is there any term less exciting than “epilogue”? Appendix, maybe. Or Nachschrift.) But it turns out that The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later is not only a fully-realized and intelligent work of theater, but that, in many ways, it’s a more substantial and rewarding piece than even the original play.
The first Laramie Project certainly had novelty going for it: most American audiences had never been exposed to the type of theater-as-sociology-experiment represented by Moisés Kaufman’s Tectonic Theater Company. (Happily, there’s now an off-shoot of that movement in SA, at the AtticRep’s Forum Theater Project.) Seeing a theater company descend on a town—microphones and videocams in tow—represented something new and exciting, as actors transformed the raw transcripts of their interviews into an affecting docudrama about the shocking murder of Matthew Shepherd: a young gay man brutally beaten and left for dead, shackled to a fence in Wyoming. The piece thus explored the intersection of homophobia, politics, and rural identity at the turn of the millennium.
At first, the sequel presents itself almost identically to the original play: troupe members return to Laramie, Wyoming—with the same sort of idiosyncratic self-narration that characterizes the first piece—and begin the long (and doubtless, tedious) process of field work. But then the piece takes a startling turn. In 1998, the Tectonic Theater Company was not only new to American audiences, but new to Laramie: the troupe’s other-ness helped to establish its credibility as a dispassionate recorder of human experience. By 2008, however, the observers had clearly affected the observed—and the observed are hopping mad. (“We’re a town, not a project,” the local paper objects.) And as the Tectonic Company discovers, there are darker undercurrents afoot: in the first play, it was obvious that Matthew Shepherd was the victim of anti-gay violence—indeed, the trial transcripts are conclusive on this point. By 2008, however, the town is well on its way towards re-inventing history: after an (odious) episode of TV’s “20/20,” much of Laramie is happy to think of the murder as merely a drug deal gone bad. (No homophobia here in Laramie, thank you much.) And that’s just the remembering; even worse is the forgetting, signified not only by literal excision of Shepherd’s fence, but by the clueless freshmen at the University of Wyoming who have only the vaguest idea of who Shepherd was, or why anybody should care.
The first Laramie Project was permeated by a sense of a single crime’s injustice: the second, by the inexorable and cruel suppression of the discourse of homosexuality within an entire system. The first looked at the plight of a solitary gay man at a single, terrible, instant in time; the second, at a pattern of injustice against gays that permeates all available media (newspapers, TV, theater) and that uses every postmodern trick in the book: re-writing, re-membering, re-presenting. Dave Steakley’s elegant and understated production employs the spare set design—a table and chairs—to good advantage; the ugliness of human nature plays out against the natural beauty of Wyoming, as illuminated in Colin Lowry’s subdued projections. The acting of the eight-person company is generally fine: it’s always a pleasure to see Jaston Williams (of “Greater Tuna” fame), though sweet-faced Frederic Winkler is somewhat miscast as neo-Nazi murderer Aaron McKinney. (That interview is still the most horrifying and gripping scene in the play, however.) The evening’s single intermission makes more dramatic sense than the original’s double intermission. It’s a powerful evening of theater.
The Zach Scott is presenting both parts of The Laramie Project in repertory for another week, so if you haven’t seen the original, you can (and should, dammit) take in a twofer on Saturday. For unless one of the theaters in San Antonio programs it soon, Alamo City audiences will have to wait until The Laramie Project: Twenty Years Later.
-Thomas “Bouquets” Jenkins, Current Theater Critic