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Chance Theater Presents an Epic Day of Theater with 'The Laramie Project' Works

Karen Webster, Brandon Sean Pearson and Erika C. Miller star in the Chance Theater Company production of 'The Laramie Project.'

The Laramie Project Works
Chance Theater
5552 E. La Palma Ave.,
Anaheim Hills
Through May 19
Thursdays (Part 1)
and Fridays (Part 2) at 8 p.m.;
Saturdays at 3 p.m. (Part 1)
and 8 p.m. (Part 2);
Sundays at 2 p.m. (Part 1)
and 7 p.m. (Part 2)
Reservations: 714.777.3033
:: chancetheater.com

Recently, our nation experienced a tragedy with the bombings in Boston, and the aftermath has left us all asking how this could happen, and most importantly why. Fifteen years ago, a horrific crime occurred in the small town of Laramie, Wyoming and left a nation asking the same questions.

On October 6, 1998, a young University of Wyoming college student named Matthew Shepard was kidnapped, robbed, tortured, and left for dead, tied to a fence outside of town. This 21-year-old man happened to be gay, which fueled this hateful crime, perpetrated by two local Laramie men. Because of the nature of the offense, it received a great deal of media attention and Laramie, Wyoming became infamous and tied to this appalling hate crime.

The death of Matthew Shepard and the subsequent convictions of his killers was on the radar of Moises Kaufman, artistic director of the Tectonic Theater Project in New York, who decided to go to Laramie and investigate. He took along 11 members of his company to assist in interviewing those involved in the case and people in the community affected by the crime. What resulted from this extensive research was the award-winning play, The Laramie Project.

The Laramie Project opened in Denver at The Ricketson Theatre in February 2000 and was later staged in the Union Square Theatre in New York City before the November 2002 performance in Laramie, Wyoming. Throughout the past 15 years, The Laramie Project has evolved into a teaching piece, performed by high schools, colleges and community theaters across the country, as well as professional playhouses in the Americas, Canada, the United Kingdom, Ireland, Australia, and New Zealand. The Matthew Shepard Foundation, established by his parents, Judy and Dennis Shepard, offers financial grants to schools who wish to perform the play.

The Chance Theater also had this play on their radar, and with their own award-winning Director/Artistic Director/co-founder Oanh Nguyen, they took on the ambitious undertaking of mounting both The Laramie Project and its companion piece, The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later. Nguyen assembled eight of Chance’s resident artists to perform close to a hundred different characters. Jocelyn Brown, Robert Foran, David McCormick, James McHale, Erika C. Miller, Karen O’Hanlon, Brandon Sean Pearson, and Karen Webster are all to be commended for their brilliant performances and impressive ability to switch into a myriad of parts. Once you recognize the transition devices and buy into the theatrical method to their madness, you are drawn into the town of Laramie and are taken on a somber journey narrated by the townsfolk of Laramie who recount what occurred that fateful night and beyond. In Ten Years Later, we learn about what happened long after the dust settled in Laramie.

All performances by these eight skilled actors are to be commended. Each are assigned a member of the Tectonic Theatre Company and are identified as this character in the program. However, they all take on numerous roles; at times it is very Sybil-esque - not an easy task! I can still hear Karen Webster’s transition from the two-pack-a-day gruff-speaking townie, Marge Murray to her sensitive portrayal of Trish Steger, Romaine Patterson’s sister to Tectonic member, Amanda Gronich. Karen O’Hanlon juggles a myriad of personalities adeptly and is memorable as the militant Catherine Connolly, the openly gay University of Wyoming professor. Jocelyn Brown plays Tectonic’s Leigh Fondakowski, as well as the police officer Reggie Fluty, while Erika C. Miller plays Kelli Simpkins and Romaine Patterson, one of Matthew Shepard’s old friends. Robert Foran stands out as playwright Moises Kaufman and a grieving and pensive Dennis Shepard; David McCormick is Stephen Belber as well as Doc O’Connor and steals the show many times with his characterizations. James McHale is terrific as one of Laramie’s few gay residents, Jonas Slonaker, as well as Tectonic’s Greg Pierotti. Brandon Sean Pearson delivers some great moments as Andy Paris, but really stands out as convicted killer Aaron McKinney. McHale, who portrays Russell Henderson, McKinney’s accomplice, is a sympathetic contrast to Pearson’s portrayal of the hateful McKinney, who you really see in Ten Years Later.

How Laramie has changed as a community is what is examined in Ten Years Later. Characters are revisited and the focus shifts to the meeting and interviewing of the two convicted killers, who 10 years prior, were not cooperative with the project. There are changes in Laramie - an annual AIDS walk, Drag Queen Bingo and a solid LGBT community on campus. However, Matthew’s story has faded and there is still no Hate Crime legislation on the books in Wyoming. A bench on campus is memorialized on the 10th anniversary of Matthew’s death, but the fanfare is disappointing. And the infamous fence is long gone... A positive note added as an addendum (it occurred after the play was produced) is the mention of the passing of The Matthew Shepard Act, signed into law by President Barack Obama on October 28, 2009.  

Technically, this show is hauntingly simple. No soundtrack or elaborate sets. Fred Kinney’s scenic design is minimal and prop master Jules Fugett incorporates very few props, which are used to segue characterizations, housed in banker’s boxes and ritualistically stored in a bank of white cabinetry used as the backdrop for Joe Holbrook’s video design. Eight chairs, one for each character, are used to define space, and create the symbolic Laramie fence. KC Wilkerson’s lighting design and Ryan Brodkin’s sound design is noteworthy.

We can all take away something from The Laramie Project, and it is a relevant piece of theater for young adults to see and learn from. This is more important than ever, as our technology has allowed hate and bigotry to spread through that World Wide Web, and our children are exposed to hate more than ever before. The rash of cyber bullying and teen suicide in recent years cannot be ignored. We must encourage teaching moments about prejudice and promote tolerance in our society; these can be scary times, and with any historical event, we need to acknowledge our past mistakes, keep questioning and learning, so they are not repeated. (OK, I’ll step down from my soap box now.)

What is so brilliant about these two plays is the reporting style used and the intelligent way the narrative is presented. It is not preachy and the audience can draw their own conclusions, a testament to great direction - Oanh Nguyen’s straight-forward approach lends itself beautifully to this ensemble piece. The Chance is to be commended for championing Laramie’s story.

If you decide to see both shows in one day, it is a marathon, but well worth it. Clear your calendar and settle into one of the 49 comfortable chairs at the Chance for a powerful, thought-provoking and unique theater experience.

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