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Theater Review: ‘Laramie Project’ powerful at Civic

“The Laramie Project” is an astounding work of theater.

Civic Theatre of Allentown’s production of “The Laramie Project,” through Sept. 24, Theater 514, directed by William Sanders, Civic Theatre of Allentown Managing Artistic Director, and Rae Labadie, is an astounding production.

“The Laramie Project” is a dramatized examination of the 1998 murder of Matthew Shepard in Laramie, Wyo. Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson were arrested, charged with first-degree murder, convicted and imprisoned for life. The murder was characterized as a gay hate crime.

“The Laramie Project,” a 2000 play based on interviews, newspaper articles, TV coverage, the court cases and events that unfolded after the murder, was written by Moisés Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project (Leigh Fondakowski, writer-director; Stephen Belber, Greg Pierotti, Barbara Pitts, Stephen Wangh, Amanda Gronich, Sara Lambert, John McAdams, Maude Mitchell, Andy Paris and Kelli Simpkins), who traveled several times to Laramie to gather information for the play.

The genre for “The Laramie Project” is known as documentary theater, or verbatim theater. The play, in three acts with two intermissions, is presented by the actors in direct address, whereby they speak directly to the audience, portraying members of the Tectonic Theater Project, including some 60 real-life persons, in dozens of brief scenes.

Not specifically, but generally, “The Laramie Project” is reminiscent to this reviewer of “Our Town” (1938), a three-act play by Thornton Wilder, usually performed on a bare stage set, with minimal props and employing metatheatrical devices (for example, breaking the fourth wall in direct address to the audience).

Whereas in “Out Town,” the Stage Manager performs the omnibus (i.e., the “for all” role), in “The Laramie Project,” most every actor steps into this role.

In the Civic Theatre production, 11 actors (Nicole Anderson, Tim Brown, Robert Coll, Todd Croslis, Becky Enborg, Bowie Green, Pat Kelly, Josh Labadie-Gulotta, Marley Mathias, Rachel Van Dyke-Stipick and Jake Walbert) transition seamlessly between characters and scenes.

The play uses a device whereby one actor may introduce a character in the play by name, and then the introduced actor immediately takes on the role. The changing roles are augmented by the addition of a hat, coat or other clothing attire and a repositioning of the stage by Set and Costume Designer Marilyn Loose and Props by Jason Daniel Sizemore, as well as by shifts in mood and sound by Lighting Designer Ellen Schmoyer and Sound Designer Randall Utsch.

Each actor in the Civic production is excellent.

Tim Brown is especially convincing in the role of Moisés Kaufman, one of three roles he plays.

Bobby Coll is wonderfully versatile, portraying some eight characters, and is subtly commanding as the Judge applying the rule of law.

Todd Croslis assays some seven roles, none more riveting than as Russell Henderson, one of the killers.

Josh Labadie-Gulotta is amazing in each of seven roles, including that of Aaron McKinney, the other of the two killers.

Marley Mathias may play the most number of characters, 11, by my count, and each is distinctive.

Jake Walbert, in six roles, is believably hateful as Rev. Fred Phelps.

Bowie Green portrays five characters and is brimming with angel power as Romaine Patterson.

Pat Kelly, in one of six roles, brings the play home and to heart as Dennis Shepard, Matthew Shepard’s father. Kelly dabs his eyes with a handkerchief. You may have a similar reaction. I did.

“The Laramie Project” has the sense of a police procedural. Call it “CSI: Laramie.” It’s reportage. It’s a testimonial. It’s a eulogy. It’s a theatrical patchwork of The Names Project AIDS Memorial Quilt.

Sanders and Labadie build the tension imperceptibly and provide comedic relief throughout the superb performance. This is a challenging and rewarding play and one well-worth seeing.

The Civic Theatre production of “The Laramie Project” is insightful and powerful. Don’t miss it.

“The Laramie Project,” 2 p.m. Sept. 17, 24; 7:30 p.m. Sept. 20, 21, 22, 23, Civic Theatre of Allentown, Theatre514, 514 N. 19th St., Allentown. 610-432-8943; https://civictheatre.com/

CONTRIBUTED PHOTO BY BILL BASTA “The Laramie Project,” Theatre 514, Civic Theatre of Allentown.