Congress did not have Bertolt Brecht in mind when it wrenched the government into shutdown mode early this week. But the politicians did achieve — indirectly — a small Brechtian feat Tuesday night. That evening was the scheduled press performance for Ford’s Theatre’s staging of “The Laramie Project,” the high-profile play about the killing of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student, in Laramie, Wyo. The production, part of Ford’s Lincoln Legacy Project, coincides with the 15th anniversary of Shepard’s death.
Currently operated through a public-private partnership between the Ford’s Theatre Society and the National Park Service, Ford’s was able to keep its theatrical programming rolling during previous government closings. (The society points out that its productions do not use federal funding.) As sparks flew on Capitol Hill, the staff assumed as late as Monday that the same would be the case in 2013.
On Tuesday, as zealous theater critics readied their pens for “Laramie Project” note-taking, staff at Ford’s were informed that performances would not be allowed in the historic theater during this government shutdown. With the anniversary of Shepard’s death and the planned limited run of the production creating a ticking-clock scenario, an alternate venue was found for the press performance. At 7:30 p.m, the cast of Ford’s Theatre’s “The Laramie Project,” directed by Matthew Gardiner, unveiled its interpretation of the play in the rehearsal hall of Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company — a space in which the actors had not even had time to rehearse.
The set, lights and projections designed for the production could not be relocated at such short notice — and that, curiously, gave the performance a certain Brechtian appropriateness. Distilled and crafted from interviews that members of the Tectonic Theater Project conducted in Wyoming in the aftermath of Shepard’s death, “The Laramie Project” was spearheaded by writer/director Moises Kaufman, who has written about the inspiration the project drew from Brecht. The bare-bones visuals of Tuesday’s performance — unspooling in front of a black curtain, around a table and a few gray chairs — hammered home the quintessentially Brechtian distancing effect that is part and parcel of the script itself.
“The Laramie Project” is about the ambivalence, biases and anguish of a community — and a culture — before and after a horrific hate crime. But, as written by Kaufman and his colleagues, the play is also about a theater company researching and creating a play: With its documentary style, direct address, and moments where role-juggling actors helpfully identify which, of many Laramie and Tectonic Theater characters, they are portraying, the show doesn’t aim to lull viewers into a cozy theatrical illusion. It aims to make them feel, notice and think.
That being said, to judge by Tuesday’s performance, Gardiner’s production is rich in funny, affecting, artfully idiosyncratic evocations of vivid and sometimes disturbing personalities. Credit goes to a top-tier cast. For instance, Craig Wallace is hilarious and riveting as Doc O’Connor, an opinionated limousine driver who crosses paths with Shepard on the night of the murder: Adjusting his cap, striking a brazenly confident stance, Wallace’s Doc revels in his own bluntness. But Wallace also gets to sound other notes: With formal mannerisms and a haunted look in his eye, he becomes the overworked hospital chief executive who has to interact with the media during the last days of Shepard’s life — a man whose voice breaks when he reads out his final news release but who sounds stoic when he recalls receiving hate mail.
Other standout turns include Paul Scanlan’s rendering of a callow acting student — an “Angels in America” enthusiast — who is questioning his own conscience about homosexuality when the Tectonic interviewers are in town. Chris Stezin is delightfully quirky as a fast-talking, dish-towel-wielding bartender; Kimberly Gilbert lends endearing awkwardness to her depiction of Matthew’s friend Romaine Patterson; and Holly Twyford brings persuasive twang and intensity to the role of the sheriff’s deputy who cuts Matthew down from the fence where he has been tied. Mitchell Hebert, Kimberly Schraf and Katherine Renee Turner also turn in some striking portraits.
Gardiner contributes apt transitions and beats of drama, like a moment when multiple actors swivel, lunge and transform into sound-bite-hungry national reporters holding out microphones. On Tuesday, the actors wore Helen Huang’s informative casual-dress costumes. John Gromada’s high-lonesome music and sound effects helped evoke milieu. All in all, the performance suggested that, when and if the production finally unfurls on the Ford’s stage, right next to the box where Lincoln was shot, “The Laramie Project” will be resonant and duly gripping.
Wren is a freelance writer.
By Moises Kaufman and the members of the Tectonic Theater Project. Directed by Matthew Gardiner. Visit www.fords.org for the latest information. Performances will be at 7:30 p.m. Friday and Tuesday at the First Congregational United Church of Christ, 945 G Street NW (a block and a half from Ford’s Theatre). Doors will open at 6:30 p.m. Free tickets will be distributed on site on a first-come basis. House will open for seating at 7 p.m.