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It was a rock in the sandy road that caused Wyoming student Aaron Kreifels, out for a late-afternoon bike ride, to somersault over his handlebars and land within feet of the body of Matthew Shepard. Getting up from his tumble, still slightly disoriented, he thought the dark shape lying at the foot of the fence out in the middle of a rural development was a Halloween prank. He walked closer. He couldn't see a face, but the chest was slowly rising and falling. It still didn't register that Aaron was looking at a real person. But when he saw the fine blond hair on Matthew's head, Aaron knew this was no Halloween prank.
Holocaust Museum Houston, 5401 Caroline, 713-522-2204.
He ran to the nearest house and called the police. The first responder was policewoman Reggie Fluty, who found Shepard tied to the fence, his head savagely bashed in. Somehow he was still alive. There was so much dried blood, she said, you couldn't see Matthew's face. The only place where there wasn't any blood: the tracks down his cheeks made by his tears.
This chilling discovery ends Act I of Moisés Kaufman's docudrama The Laramie Project, and a more devastating, poignant lead-in to intermission would be difficult to find in theater. It's doubly harrowing, perhaps, since it's all true.
If you've been living under a bridge for the last ten years, you may not know of Matthew Shepard, but his senseless death has become the rallying cry for hate-crime legislation and motivation in the fight for tolerance and gay rights. Maybe you're too young to remember 1998 — even more reason to go to the Holocaust Museum and see Theatre New West's powerful, if slightly uneven, production.
Best known as artistic director of the Tectonic Theater Project, responsible for the fascinating docudrama Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, Moisés Kaufman and his acting troupe traveled to Laramie only one month after Shepard's death. They interviewed more than 200 residents and kept returning long enough to be present at the media circus that surrounded the trials of murderers Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson. They also witnessed the subsequent town backlash against their portrayal in the media as a city of hicks and haters. Whittled down from weeks of tapes into a coherent piece of drama, the play is a masterful piece of engineering, with undeniable power and an inexorable rhythm that tightens as it progresses. Sadly, we know the ending, but it's the telling that grabs us.
Eight actors portray all the diverse characters. They include a sunny drama teacher at the university, a Pakistani Muslim feminist, the low-rent girlfriends of the killers, the killers themselves, bartenders, taxi drivers and hospital workers. Some appear for only the briefest of scenes, while other characters span the entire play, appearing at appropriate moments to make ironic commentary or bolster the facts. The actors also portray some of the original members of the Tectonic Company interviewing the residents. Even Kaufman makes an appearance. (This self-conscious theatrical conceit limits the play and keeps it from being transcendent. But it still packs a wallop.)
The acting space in the auditorium at the Holocaust Museum is limited to a narrow front strip in front of the house, but director Joe Watts has imaginatively staged the action in "cinemascope," with his actors on bar stools and low benches. At times, they fan out behind the audience or stray into the side aisles. The whole look is black and red, from the actors' clothes to the chairs, giving the intimate production a painterly cohesion without pretense.
The cast of eight performs the Herculean task of giving so many characters their due, yet each one shines in particular moments: Alyssum Genthon, as Matthew's friend Romaine, who stands up to bigot Fred Phelps; Derrick Brent, as streetwise taxi driver Doc; Nina Garcia, brilliant as Zubaida Ula; Jordan Jaffe as Rulon Stacey, delivering bloodcurdling medical updates on Matthew's condition; Nora Hahn, as no-nonsense policeman Reggie Fluty; Brian Jones, as Matthew's father, with his heartbreaking "I give you life" speech to the condemned McKinny; Terry Smith, as social service worker Marge Murray; and Brian Chambers, radiant as innocent student Jedadiah Schultz.
Although "Matt's Flame," a poetic tribute written by Watts that opens Act II, is unnecessary, it is short. The bigger dramatic gaffe is having an actor appear as Shepard in a mute role. He either sits on a stool, aping the famous Shepard pose from photographs, or appears unbidden at spots during the play to beam beatifically and then wander off. It's just wrong. We make our own Matthew; he's there in every line. By being so specific, the play narrows, it doesn't expand. The ache is larger, and more unbearable, when he doesn't show up.
Kaufman's play, though on an unmistakable mission, is never didactic, never propaganda. It's fair to a fault. The facts are there; make of them what you will. That they can be so gruesome and so insufferably sad, yet produce an outcome so full of hope and celebration, is theater magic. Come to remember, and to celebrate, Matthew's "sparkling light."
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