Traditionally, community theater takes the safe, middle-of-the-road approach to select plays in order to please a wide slice of the community.
The Laramie Project, written by MoisÈs Kaufman and members of the Tectonic Theater Project, is not that type of play.
But with nearly 60 years of history to lean on, the Kentwood Players can afford to take some risks. So beginning Friday, January 9th, and running through February 14th at the Westchester Playhouse, the theater group will stage the widely praised play created following the appalling murder of Matthew Shepard, a gay university student who was beaten and left to die on the outskirts of Laramie, Wyoming. Kaufman and his theater based the play on more than 400 interviews conducted with members of the once-quiet town.
“This isn’t warm, fuzzy theater,” says Susie McCarthy, who plays multiple roles in the production. “I hope this production makes people feel a little uneasy; I hope it will be thought provoking.”
“It isn’t your average community theater fare. I’m really impressed the board at Kentwood gave this show the green light. It’s a risk,” says Michael Allen, the director and set designer.
Gail Bernardi, president of the Kentwood Players and one of those board members who gave the green light, explains it like this: “The theater-going public needs to be given a little jolt once in a while.”
However, Christine JoÎlle, the producer of the show and a member of the Plays Committee for Kentwood Players, doesn’t exactly see it that way.
“I don’t feel it’s a risky show at all,” says JoÎlle. “This was an event beautifully recorded by a theater troupe and should be shared at any venue.”
She adds, “I personally feel that Westchester Playhouse is a perfect place to display this production. Society comes from our communities and being a community theater, we strive to produce and perform all types of shows, including those which makes one think of the world around us. This is truly a piece where people will find themselves thinking in the end.”
Of course, the performance of the cast is integral in provoking this thought, as well as in entertaining.
As is usually the case with the Kentwood Players, open auditions were held to cast the project. Over 60 people showed up, which gave Allen quite a talent pool to choose from.
“I could have cast the show several times over,” says Allen.
The final cast includes Olev Aleksander, Jerad Callen, Tim Forsyth, Toni Loppnow, Susie McCarthy, Maria Pavone, Jason Schlatter and Tiffany Towers. All told, they combine to portray more than 60 characters on stage.
“The challenge with this script is that the actors create multiple characters and environments, sometimes with a simple gesture or a costume piece,” says McCarthy. “It isn’t your standard-one-set-seven-character-three-act-play.”
According to Allen, The Laramie Project “does not have a conventional play structure, nor does it answer all the issues raised. Written as a docudrama, it simply tells each person’s reaction to the crime that happened in their midst. No matter who you are, you will find someone you agree with, someone you don’t, and someone you think is ‘Just way out of line.’ All these individual stories create a patchwork of the collective morality that we all must claim to be part of.”
Perhaps part of community theater’s responsibility is to keep that “collective morality” moving in the right direction. And the Kentwood Players have done that for a long time.
The Westchester Playhouse is located at 8301 Hindry Ave., Westchester. Tickets are $18 with a $2 discount for seniors, students and servicemen. 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday through February 14th.
Information, (310) 645-5156, www.kentwoodplayers.org/.