08MatthewShepard“The Laramie Project” opens May 30 at Gilbert Theater on Green Street. It tells the story of Matthew Shepard, a gay college student at the University of Wyoming. He was beaten and left for dead by two men in October 1998. Days later, he died from his injuries.

“The Laramie Project,” written by members of the New York-based Tectonic Theater Project and originally produced in 2000, is about the aftermath of Matthew’s death and the community’s reactions. Known as “verbatim theater,” the play and dialogue were culled from hundreds of interviews conducted by the Tectonic Theater Group members during their visit to Laramie, Wyoming. Larry Carlisle directs the production at Gilbert Theater.

“‘The Laramie Project’ is decidedly different from other productions in that the emphasis is on the characters and their monologues and not on sets or props,” Carlisle said. Carlisle takes a minimalist approach to directing his cast, preferring to let them interpret the characters. “I always say an actor’s job is to make the show look good — my job is to make the actors look good.”

Each member of the cast plays as many as 10 different characters, and some of them are drastically different. The emotional range necessary to bounce back and forth is astounding, but the cast takes it all in stride. Deannah Robinson plays five characters. “It’s a bit of a challenge, and it’s definitely a learning experience, but it’s something I’ll take with me,” she said.

James Merkle plays Matt Galloway, the bartender and the last person to see Shepard before the attack. He’s guilt-ridden for having not seen what was about to happen. But Merkle also plays Aaron McKinney, one of the two men who killed Shepard. "We have to come up with different ways of creating the characters so they don’t sound the same. It can be challenging, but also fun,” said Galloway.

Chris Walker plays both Dennis Shepard, Matthew’s father, and Rev. Fred Phelps. Phelps was the head of the notorious Westboro Baptist Church in Topeka, Kansas. His parishioners, made up almost entirely of his family members, gained national attention for protesting at the funerals of gay people.

Merkle, who spoke with a palpable reverence for Shepard, said: “You’re seeing two spectrums — those that were horrified by what happened and those who were defending the attackers.”

He also feels the play is especially timely in respect to current political situations. “I find it very relevant today of what’s going on out there,” he said. “It almost seems like we’re heading back to that moment. If we don’t learn from the past, we’re doomed to repeat it. But there’s also a sign of hope — hope that we can move past this.”

While Shepard has become the face of the movement against hate crimes, “The Laramie Project” has become the proverbial mirror in society’s face. It continues to reflect the many reactions to the LGBTQ community and the dangers its members face.

“The Laramie Project” opens May 30. Performances are at 8 p.m. May 30 – June 1 and Jun 5 -8. Matinee performances are at 2 p.m. June 1-2 and June 8-9. Visit www.gilberttheater.com to purchase tickets.

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