BODY AND SOUL: As played by Kelli Simpkins, Aaron Kreifels encapsulates everything that’s resonant about this production.
You can't accuse "The Laramie Residency" of being anything less than exhaustive in its four-and-a-half-hour series of interviews about the 1998 Matthew Shepard murder. And it's quite a coup for the new ArtsEmerson series to bring back the Tectonic Theater Project — not only to restage its groundbreaking production of The Laramie Project, but to host the world premiere of The Laramie Project: Ten Years Later (through October 2 at the Cutler Majestic Theatre).
If you've seen the original, you could of course just skip ahead to the new one. But if you have the time on Friday or Saturday afternoon, there's good reason to revisit the first part. More moving than the Boston Theatre Works production of 2001, it powerfully sets up the drama of the sequel, which is performed later those nights.
The format is the same. The group interviewed principals in the case as well as townspeople about what happened and how it could have happened. But Ten Years Later adds two important interviewees: Aaron McKinney and Russell Henderson, Shepard's killers, who bludgeoned him within an inch of his life and left him tied to a fence in a remote rural area. And it tackles the 2004 20/20 allegation that the murder wasn't a hate crime — that Shepard and the killers knew each other from Laramie's drug underworld.
The Tectonics, à la Anna Deavere Smith, re-enact the interviews, along with speeches and press conferences. Most, like Smith, inhabit the bodies and souls of the Laramie folks so convincingly that it can be a challenge to figure out which actor is which. They're particularly effective at playing the Laramie citizens who were outraged, and who waxed eloquently about how they needed to "own the murder" and not just dismiss it as the work of two crazies. That's particularly crucial in Ten Years Later, when some townspeople are only too happy to accept the 20/20 version of events — i.e., that Shepard was no saint and maybe even brought the attack on himself.
It's hard to pick a favorite in such a fine ensemble, but Kelli Simpkins as Aaron Kreifels, the young man who found Shepard on the fence, is right up there. Kreifels's naive goodness, mournful reflection, and search for meaning encapsulate everything that's resonant about the production.
On the other hand, Scott Barrow — playing Tectonic artistic director Moisés Kaufman, among others — seems to be challenging Sam Waterston as the most earnest actor in America. Of course, Kaufman and company are earnest, and the self-congratulatory robe Laramie cloaks itself in is its least attractive aspect. When the Laramians are saying something noble, the cast members to the side of the action smile beatifically. But when characters aren't with the program, they come across as utterly shallow. At one point, somebody charges that everyone who descended on Laramie came with an agenda, and you wonder whether that's not true of the Tectonics, too. Great theater needs to do more than tell us what we want to hear. Which is where Anna Deavere Smith is a step ahead of Laramie.
That said, "The Laramie Project" is both chilling — particularly the interviews with the murderers — and redemptive, and that's more than you can say about the vast majority of contemporary drama. This is an important piece of theater. Its pairing with a polar opposite in ArtsEmerson's inaugural program — Fräulein Maria at the Paramount — stamps AE as an invaluable addition to Boston's arts landscape.