Sunday, November 04, 2007

Acting Action in Acton

Let us dispense with Fred Phelps' Westboro Baptist publicity hounds. They missed good theater in the Acton-Boxborough high auditorium last night. Outside before The Laramie Project started, his soaked and emotionally stunted little band were on a grassy median at the school-bus turnaround. They were orally overpowered by counter protesters beside the school entrance singing such as This Land Is Your Land. There must have been more actors on stage than in the Westboro lump. I took a camera, but he didn't need any more attention.

On the good side though, the second of four nights of the play sold out. The hooha that the anti-gay sorts locally and from Kansas made apparently was good fund raising publicity for the high school.

For next weekend, you should be able to get seats here. They are $12, with no extra costs and you can order online for pickup.

Bud over at MassResistance Watch has been insightful and clear on how other anti-gay sorts can't really distance themselves from the Westboro Baptist Church. They have the same message, they cloak it in a tortured religiosity, and they iterate and reiterate how their particular expression is not hate. Yet, of course it is.

Amusingly, after MassResistance chief blogger Amy Contrada (an Acton resident, whose daughter is in the play) declaimed the play on her site, she told the Globe that her little group was unlike Phelps' crew. Her version of protesting was first to ask the school not to stage the play. Then she helped organize what she called a forum, bringing in anti-gay and ex-gay speakers to decry the play and homosexuality.

It's hard to tell whether she actually believes what's on her website. It has countless homosexuality slurs and scare commentary on AIDS and other STDs. For the play, as the Globe article put it:
Contrada, who declined to discuss her daughter's involvement in the play, said one of her biggest concerns is for the safety of the students exposed to the play. She said gay activist groups have been in contact with the students and are introducing them to websites that promote dangerous lifestyles.

"They are taking kids who are vulnerable and sending them to bizarre websites," Contrada said. "They are clearly directing the students toward the homosexual/transgender movement."

Refreshingly, the A-B youth seem much more level-headed and open. Those in and out of the play reflect the attitude of their age group -- the play is about openness, and then, what's the big deal about homosexuals?

The Play's the Thing

More background than you want is at a New York Times archive on the murder and aftermath is here. A professional review of the play when it opened seven years ago is here.

Get the details from the Times site, but the essential info is that a playwright and good of students visited Laramie, Wyoming, after college student Matthew Shepard was beaten and left for dead, tied to a rural fence for 18 hours before someone found him. The play grew from over 200 interviews before and after Shepard died.

Comparisons with Our Town are apt and inevitable. The three-act play relies on moments, snippets of monologue or dialog in staccato presentation on a minimalist stage. A swarm of stagehands work constantly to move chairs and small wooden tables into place many dozens of times. The stage is polka dotted with white prop marks.

With the format, the actors did not have the traditional demands of serious theater or comedy. They had no physical performance or long orations. There were few personal interacti0ns and most characters had little development because of their short stage time.

At the same time, most actors played four to seven roles. They had to take off a jacket and tie, and then shift personality and sometimes voice for the next moment as someone else.

This is not the place for a formal theater review. However, I saw this as a good but not great production. The large cast varied in acting ability. Everyone was good and some shone.

The cohesion of Mois├ęs Kaufman's play is key to this as satisfying theater. Grabbing a little over two hours of dialog that represents over a year of research and interviews is masterful. You leave with a clear sense of the actions and motivations of the dozens of sketched townspeople portrayed by the 23 actors. Shepard himself never appears, yet the anecdotes of him from those who do make him one of the most developed characters.

Oddly enough, to the purported objections of a small group of parents, neither the language nor the subject is particularly graphic or obscene, at least by any standard after the 1960s. For crying out loud in bucket! Here was a gay college student given a ride from a bar by two local men about the same age who certainly intended to rob him. One of them claimed that Shepard came onto him sexually, which flipped him enough that they savagely beat and pistol whipped him, tied him to the fence and abandoned him in no one should have found him to bleed and freeze to death. It as small town homophobia and a resulting brutal murder.

In that light, the language was tame, like prime-time network TV standards. Of course, TV also constantly deals with murders and sexuality. In those regards, the dialogs and monologues were very restrained, with little obscenity and the most graphic terms coming from one of the murderers' confession.

Acton Acting

If you go to next week's production, prepare yourself for a theater subculture. Like many schools have gym banners with their girls' volleyball championship years, A-B's auditorium touts the plays they have performed and won awards with. Also, when the drama director, Linda Potter, announced the evening, the kids applauded for her like she was a huge star, and she is to them.

By the bye, from the looks of their schedule and the previous productions, it appears as though they mix it up. They put on one demanding drama a year, alternating with musicals, comedy and dinner theater. Next up is Brigadoon. Perhaps the Scottish-American anti-fantasy-land contingent will find fault with that.

It is a wealthy area. The children and parents appeared very wholesome. Quite a few of the youth wore the purple ERASE HATE t-shirts supporting the ideas in The Laramie Project. Also, they are a damned homogeneous group. Out of about 1,000 people I saw on stage, in the audience and in the many, many police present, I think I picked out one Black man, a Latino student, and a half dozen melting pot this.

Yet, I have to say that this is another case of leaving feeling sanguine about us all, at least the future us as foreshadowed by these youth. A few parents acted out their own emotional problems with equality and gay rights, as did itinerant protesters. They had their say and the vast majority of students, facility, parents and community members disagreed and blew them off. Having the right to express your opinion does not by itself convince anyone.

We squinted through the downpour Saturday from JP to Acton. I'd say it was worth the trip.

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Rieux said...

Hi, MM. I'm writing after learning (the same way you did, I think) that Amy Contrada's daughter has come out, leading Amy to pull said daughter out of both "The Laramie Project" and Acton-Boxborough Regional High School entire.

A thought occurred to me as I was reading "Ryan's Take" on that news: there are still two performances left of "The Laramie Project" at ABRHS. Despite the fact that a cast member has been spirited away by a virulently homophobic parent, presumably the show must go on tonight and tomorrow night, November 9 and 10.

Call me melodramatic, but it seems to me that recent events make these last two AB performances of "Laramie" among the most important productions of that play that have ever been mounted--anywhere and by anyone. There's a fundamental congruence between the events that led to the creation of the play and the events that have just occurred in a home in Acton; obviously the brutality of Matthew Shepard's death is unparalleled (and I expect the younger Ms. Contrada will come through this stronger than ever)--but it sure appears to me that both incidents originated in the same kind of hatred.

So I wish I could attend AB's performance of "Laramie" tonight. A play that was created to document and contemplate the aftermath of an outrageous act of homophobia... now has to go up in the aftermath of an outrageous act of homophobia. I think there's something profound and (forgive me) potentially awe-inspiring about that.

I would certainly understand if the cast and production staff of AB's "Laramie" chose simply to find ways to cover the younger Ms. Contrada's parts and not invoke her name, with the intention of protecting her privacy. I'm sure they're thinking about her constantly regardless.

Still, I wish I weren't forced to be hundreds of miles away from Acton tonight. Would, er, a certain blogger have time to head over there and let the rest of us know how it goes?

(Full disclosure: I just laid this same guilt trip on Mark Snyder at Queer Today.)

massmarrier said...

Thanks for the comment and suggestion, Rieux. I'm also not around for this, but it would be great if a supporter from the local bloggers would go.

Having seen it, I do recommend it.

For the procedure, the drama coach, Ms. Potter, is very professional and I'm sure she had understudies ready.

While it is always amusing when parents blame outsiders if their kids have problems, I hope the daughter is as strong as she appears. I'm sure this is not the first time she's had to live with emotion decisions from the home front. Let's wish her health.