By Laurel Button of Mary Institute St. Louis Country Day School
Open on a softly lit vignette of two actors: wood bars crisscrossing behind them, bridge just past a sheer frame. Everything about the opening of the show sets the theme; this play, THE LARAMIE PROJECT – performed by students and teachers at Maplewood Richmond Heights High School, is honest, reflective, and gravely serious.
THE LARAMIE PROJECT is based on the real life murder of homosexual college student, Matthew Shepard, by two of his peers in the small town of Laramie, Wyoming. The show itself follows a series of true interviews conducted in Laramie, Wyoming by the playwright, Moisés Kaufman, and members of the original cast following Matthew’s murder.
The show, first performed in Denver, CO, in 2000 and then in Laramie, WY, later that year, moves using a series of vignettes, all relating to the life and death of Matthew Shepard. The bareness of both the show and of this performance creates a simple air of universality: this sort of murder can happen in anytime. Anywhere.
THE LARAMIE PROJECT, being an ensemble show where more than 20 actors are playing several different parts, does not have a clear lead. Though this performance’s use of four adult actors to fill several roles creates a high standard of quality for the students in comparison, there are a handful of actors and actresses who rose to the challenge.
Presten Pinnell, most notable for his character Matt Galloway – the bartender and last person to see Matthew Shepard before he was murdered, naturally and audibly expresses his lines and feelings in this profoundly adult, emotionally charged production.
Taylor Kennedy brings a feisty personality to her role as Romaine Patterson, Matthew Shepard’s best friend. A smile creeps onto the face of everyone in the audience upon seeing Kennedy’s smug visage as her character subdues protesters from the Westboro Baptist Church.
The intricate, yet simple set, lighting, and costuming create the illusion of standing just from the surface of something magnificent, or terrifying. James Owens, the student set designer, Hannah Hlavaty, student lighting designer, and Lans Davis, costuming/props, all succeed in relaying the show’s honest, reflective material through their intertwined technical aspects, never reducing the message- this could happen anytime, anywhere.
With so many student actors and staff members and such a large open space, there is bound to be confusion and echoing footsteps. Although both the actors and the lighting designers know their lines, staging, and many of their cues, there is often a disconnect between the cues of the actors and of the lighting designers and the people onstage are not properly lit.
The energy of the scenes, picking up throughout the entire production, and the knowledge of their lines, sometimes causes actors to speak too quickly or too soon and have their words lost in a cacophony of noise. The hollow stage platforms contribute to this issue, as everyone’s steps echo throughout the theatre.
The actors in this production of THE LARAMIE PROJECT successfully play off each other in each of the intertwined scenes of the show. Many of the high school students are able to bring an uplifting power to their characters, enlightening those around them with a single message: this could happen anytime, anywhere, so live and let live.
This review was submitted by The Cappies, a program that trains high school theater and journalism students as critics. The students then attend shows at other schools, write reviews and publish those reviews in local news outlets. At the end of the year, student critics vote for awards that are presented at a formal Cappies Gala.