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Fred Phelps' off-Broadway debut

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If the notorious Topekan Reverend Fred Phelps and his familiar "God Hates Fags" placard have to show up in a play, one can be grateful that is in a context in which it makes perfect sense. Such is the case in Moises Kaufman's The Laramie Project, his brilliant follow-up to Gross Indecency: The Trials of Oscar Wilde, which opened off-Broadway in New York City earlier this month. Whereas the latter used the trials' actual transcripts in piecing together a portrait of history, The Laramie Project takes a similar approach in painting how a society 100 years later has made such little progress in its treatment of gay people.

Kaufman's Tectonic Theatre Company spent several months in Laramie after the murder of gay college student Matthew Shepard. The play -- truly one of the most moving theatrical experiences I've ever seen -- brings 60 interviewees to the table to document how a town copes with such brutality. We hear from the emergency room doctor, the bicyclist who found Shepard, the young man's father, and his killers, among many others. When Phelps appears at Shepard's funeral, one actor portraying a lesbian friend of Matthew relays how she brought several friends dressed as angels to encircle the vile reverend. If the gesture seems hollow, it comes from the terror of a town that tried to disclaim such heinous behavior while wondering who would be next.

Word is that the Unicorn Theatre's Cynthia Levin is planning to see the play this week as possible consideration for Unicorn's 2001-02 season. One can only hope.

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