For the first time since opening its new Roda Theater in March, the Berkeley Rep has two plays running simultaneously in its two performance spaces.
Charles Mee’s feminist murder comedy “Big Love” continues on the Thrust Stage through mid-June, and the company opened on Wednesday night in the Roda the West Coast premiere of a fascinating and powerful new stage documentary “The Laramie Project.”
“The Laramie Project” is based on the 1998 torture killing in Laramie, Wyo., of Matthew Shepard, an openly gay 21-year-old university student. The show was conceived, researched, written and staged by New York’s Tectonic Theater Project, under the direction of Moises Kaufman.
Tectonic and Kaufman are best known for their 1997 “Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde,” a play that ran off-Broadway for 18 months, and in San Francisco for six.
“The Laramie Project” is a complex panoramic story, sort of a contemporary oral history by dozens of local Laramie people about the circumstances leading up to and following the murder of Shepard.
One night, two men in a Laramie bar offered Shepard a ride home, and subsequently tied him to a fence for 18 hours and tortured him, before Shepard finally died in a hospital ICU unit five days later.
A month after the murder, which attracted worldwide media attention, Tectonic Project members traveled to Laramie, a town of 27,000, for the first of six visits during which they recorded extensive interviews with 200 people.
The play then evolved over the next 18 months, constructed from those oral history interviews, and trial and news testimonies. The final scrip – a long, detailed and ambitious story, credited to five writers and seven dramaturgs – opened at Denver Center Theater Company (a two-hour drive from Laramie) in February 2000.
In telling the story of Shepard and the people of Laramie, the play struggles to find a connection between the tragedy that occurred, and a town that often prides itself on a live-and-let-live attitude.
The play begins with a cultural history of Laramie, and moves to the set-up in the bar the night before the assault.
It tracks the torture and beatings, arrest, arraignment, medical testimony by appalled hospital emergency room staff, the ensuing international media frenzy, community response, funeral, trials and judgment.
This is total immersion in the story and events, told through the personalities of various witnesses.
Their accounts range from funny to tragic.
The stories of the individual people are fascinating, from the investigating police officer who fears HIV infection, to the local Catholic priest’s profound spiritual take on the situation, to the testimony of a few local gays.
The play’s wide range of characters includes two salty old female social workers, the town’s cowboy limo driver, university people, church leaders and members, friends and family of the killers, the college student who found Matthew, and two members of the sheriff’s department.
Tectonic’s staging is terrific. Each actor plays many roles, creating multiple distinctive characters, and the performances are sharp.
The characters are touching, funny, real, and generally thoughtful.
Director Kaufman’s bare staging exposes behind-the-scenes theater rigging. It uses a small number of slide and video projections – the latter simulating live video feeds of television reporters during the media frenzy – and one impressive prairie rainstorm.
This is a long evening in the theater, running three hours with two intermissions.
Each act builds strong emotional energy, and then spills the audience out into the hallways for a break to absorb it, then starts it up again.
Some in the audience opening night felt the show was too long, but I disagree. If you go prepared for what it is – a lengthy and intelligent documentary of a profound, fascinating and moving story – you won’t be disappointed.
On Monday, June 25, 7 p.m., the Rep hosts a free discussion open to the public on the creation of “The Laramie Project,” with members of Tectonic and Cal journalism professor Douglas Foster.
For information, call 647-2900.
Some of the show’s actors will rotate out of the cast in the middle of June – replaced by understudies – when they leave to work on the HBO movie of “The Laramie Project” currently in production.
Planet theater reviewer John Angell Grant has written for “American Theatre,” “Backstage West,” “Callboard,” and many other publications. E-mail him at email@example.com