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‘Laramie Project’ at Music Mountain Theatre delves into homophobia and middle class values

By John Millman-Dwyer

You should see this show. Repeat: You should see this show.

I am front loading this review with where to get tickets. The reason to see it is twofold: First is its subject matter and its current relevance. Second is the excellence of the direction and acting by this local theater company. Tickets, are available online

“The Laramie Project” is a play based on interviews of residents in Laramie, Wyoming, after the murder of Matthew Shepard. On Oct. 6, 1998, the University of Wyoming student was beaten, tortured and left to die on a barbed wire fence. Matthew was gay, and the play examines the brutality of the crime, whether his sexual orientation was the basis for the extreme nature of the killing and how being gay invokes biases and hatred, even in law-abiding, church-going folks in Mid-America. But it also invokes some “new hope” in the hearts and minds of those who are open to listening to their better angels.

Two decades since this murder, there is still hatred and bigotry out there toward the LGBTQ community. There is also anger in the public square. This play is as meaningful today as then, not just because unease with the gay community still exists (e.g. Rush Limbaugh’s most recent comment about Pete Buttegieg), but also because bigotry, anger and hate seem to have found a place at the table in politics and social media. The tragedy of Matthew’s death is exacerbated by how easy it is to put on the coat of prejudice and, in some sectors, to wear that coat proudly.

This is an important show. The production is outstanding, the acting is exceptional and the direction by Molly Chase is spot on. The set and the utilization of the stage are inspired.

All actors play multiple characters. The actors amaze. This is truly an ensemble piece, and the kind of theater that all good actors yearn to be a part of. The play requires skill as, in a few instances, there are transitions from one character to another within seconds by the same actor. He/she will be one person and, with a minor costume adjustment, picks up the next piece of dialogue as a different character.  The brilliance of this script is that if all the characters were played individually, it would never grab the heart and mind, like it does with actors transforming themselves. By seeing how all these characters are in each actor, it also infers that all these characters may be in us, as well. The good people and the not so-good can exist in the same person.  It begs the question “Which person is us? The sympathetic one or the bigot?”

The ensemble includes Rhett Commodaro, Thomas Farber, Joan Hoffman, Alex Klein, Madison Kotnarowski, Mary Murdock, Joe Naticchione, Mike Prikril, Dallas Serridge and Lauren Waksman. If any of those names sound familiar, they are all actors who have appeared previously onstage at this theater, with the exception of Joe Naticchione. In every case, this is the best opportunity for all of them to shine as actors and it has been, in my opinion, for most their best work.

Music Mountain Theatre is known for its musicals. That is perhaps to be expected as “music” is even in their name. It is seldom that they do a drama or a comedy. They took on a drama where much is required from the actor. These actors knocked it out of the park.

Rhett Commodaro as the Catholic priest, emergency room doctor and cab driver defined each individual with their own soul and demeanor. Alex Klein, also, showed the great acting range that you know he has from previous shows, but now seen within the course of two hours. He gives a moving characterization of a quirky Aaron Kreifels, who found Matt’s body on the barbed wire fence on a bicycle ride (he initially thought it was a scarecrow).  Later he plays the killer Aaron McKinney.

Again and again, each actor shows their mettle. Mary Murdock has a monologue as a resident that is chilling in the ordinariness of prejudice and hate. When you hear it from someone who sounds like your next-door neighbor, the effect is terrifying. Madison Kotnarowski gives an honest and touching portrayal of LGBTQ activist Romaine Patterson.

The 10 actors play 60 roles, and kudos to director Molly Chase for giving them the freedom to discover all these people and in framing with lighting and the barest of costume changes, the different locales and different people. A remarkable moment happens when actor Joe Naticchione at the beginning of the play changes from an interviewer to Detective Sergeant Hing. It is a moment of great storytelling that can only occur when a really fine actor has the necessary skills, aided by a fine director to not change costumes but to change personalities. From that moment on, just a few minutes into the play, the audience realized it was watching a very special production. Naticchione, also, shined as the exuberant “every guy” bartender Matt Galloway, who served Matthew Shephard drinks at the bar where he met his killers, McKinney and Henderson.

A few more kudos to the director Chase in regards to the set and the blocking. The elegant set design consisted of platforms of different levels that, not only allowed us to imagine the wide open spaces of rural Wyoming but contributed to separating moments in the play. For example, the trial judge is on a higher level stage right, while a pivotal moment of a right wing protest is upstage center on the highest platform. Chase also culled different images sent her by the Matthew Shepard Foundation to use at her discretion as projections. This was done in concert with projection designer McAffee Madding. They did excellent work.  Chris Cichon did the intricate lighting design.

I urge you to see this show. There is a casualness to hatred. We certainly see it on social media posts.

When I first came to New Hope 20 some years ago, there was a Klu Klux Klan gathering to protest gays just outside of town. Later, churches in Lambertville decried including LGBTQ in a diversity week. I don’t think we have to travel very far to find the darkness of the soul, but we also don’t have to travel very far to find the light. The Laramie Project reminds us of that. If you listen well enough, it gives the audience some “new hope.”

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