Review: Theatre with passion and skill

By John Lewis

Of all the arts, theatre has the most power to confront and move people with direct human experience.

If any proof of this is needed - go and see Shepparton Theatre Arts Group's latest production, The Laramie Project, now showing at its Bakehouse Black Box Theatre.

Over two and a half hours, a troupe of 10 local actors show how a town can be ripped apart then put back together through the most despicable and the most noble of human acts.

The play tells the story and the aftermath of the murder of Matthew Shepard, a young gay man who was savagely beaten, tied to a fence and left to die outside his hometown of Laramie in Wyoming, US in 1998.

The young man's death gripped the nation in a frenzy of outrage and debate about intolerance.

For the residents of Laramie however, it meant months of personal reflection on just what sort of community and what sort of people they were.

In a ground-breaking approach, members of New York's Tectonic Theatre company arrived in Laramie a month after the murder to conduct more than 200 interviews over a year with residents.

The entire script is made up of direct quotes from these interviews which creates a potent mix of real-life journalism and drama.

Ten actors play more than 50 characters in STAG's production of The Laramie Project.

STAG's intimate Black Box Theatre is the perfect space to peer into this human microscope.

The set is stark and bleak with windows into the night, background music is suitably urban-country with a touch of Brokeback Mountain, lights are at times warm and then cold.

The ten actors remain on stage throughout the production, morphing into more than 50 characters with a change of jacket, a slope of the shoulder, or a squint in the eye.

We see the local policeman, the cyclist who found the body, the bar staff who served the accused drinks, the doctor who treats the victim and who has to deal with the increasing media presence, rural ranchers who struggle with the challenge to their views, and the church people who are ever more certain about theirs.

Even the firebrand fundamentalist Fred Phelps makes an appearance with his infamous "God Hates Fags" placard - as he did when he attended Shepard's funeral.

Throughout this parade, our ten local actors dig into their psyches to deliver fear, anger, confusion, bitterness, tears and comfort.

That ten ordinary people can do this is remarkable enough, but equally courageous is STAG's decision to stage this technically difficult and confronting piece of theatre.

If you want light entertainment, The Laramie Project is not for you.

But if you want to be absorbed, angered, moved and ultimately uplifted then this play - presented with deep wells of passion and skill - is more than rewarding. It's absolutely uplifting.

Tickets are still available for today and tomorrow's performances, either at the Black Box Theatre door at 17 Wheeler St, or at www.stagtheatre.com