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Shakespearean tragedy explores hate crime

By |2018-01-16T08:12:02-05:00September 7th, 2006|Entertainment|

A Student Stage production presented at 4 p.m. & 8 p.m. Sunday, Sept. 10, and 4:30 p.m. Monday, Sept. 11, at The Studio Theatre in the lower level of the Hilberry Theatre, 4743 Cass Ave., Detroit. Free admission. For information: (313) 577-2972 or

A young, naive and idealistic college student fresh out of the closet got slapped into the real world one fall day in 1998 when he learned the disturbing news that 21-year-old Matthew Shepard was left to die on a fence in rural Wyoming. “It hit me like a ton of bricks,” recalled 28-year-old playwright Michael John Boynton, who was then a junior at St. Mary’s College of Maryland. “It had a profound, deep, emotional impact on me.”

While the gruesome murder sent waves of shock and fear throughout the LGBT community, it spurred Boynton into action. The result, “Matthew,” will finally premiere Sept. 10 at the Studio Theatre on the campus of Wayne State University.

“I knew this was something big and important, and I wanted to write something about it,” said Boynton, who earned a master’s degree in 2003 from the Graduate Musical Theatre Writing Program at the Tisch School of the Arts at New York University. “But I didn’t know how to attack it. I didn’t want to do it as a complex, realistic piece, because that would be tawdry – like an after school special. It required integrity, delicacy and intelligence.”

So the budding author let the project simmer for a while. He completed his undergraduate degree, moved to New York and began a career as a professional actor. However, it was while touring the country in “Romeo and Juliet” that the play’s concept came into focus. “I knew exactly what this needed to be – a Shakespearean tragedy,” he said. “It needed to be written in a five-act structure, it needed to be written in iambic pentameter. I wanted it to have weight. I wanted it to have tragedy.”

And Matthew had to die in the third act. “Anyone who knows Shakespeare knows that it’s Act Three when all the crap goes down. The rest of the play is spent dealing with it.”

The Detroit connection

Coming up with the concept is one thing. “But then comes the actual horror of writing a four-hour long Shakespearean play in verse,” Boynton laughed.

With time and a computer as his constant road companions, Boynton spent about six months crafting his script. When it was finished, he promptly put it on the shelf. “I didn’t know what I wanted to do with it.”

A lunch meeting with Moises Kaufman, whose play “The Laramie Project” premiered in 2000, changed all that. “He wanted to read my script, so he read it,” said Boynton, who was then living in New York hobnobbing with other playwrights. “He said it was smart, it was well-crafted and you should really do it.”

So a major reading for local producers was planned, but fate intervened – with a power failure that blacked out the entire eastern seaboard. It was never rescheduled, as Boynton left the Big Apple shortly thereafter to be a guest instructor of dramatic arts and English at his alma mater in Maryland. “It was a blessing in disguise, because I went back to work as a playwriting professor, and you learn more about your craft when you have to teach your craft.”

More script polishing followed, as did an offer to become a member of the Hilberry graduate program at Wayne State University. So about a year ago, Boynton invited a few undergrads to do a final reading of the play. “I totally fell in love with the script from the get-go,” said Jeremy Kucharek, 20, now a junior at WSU, who plays Matthew in the upcoming production. “After reading the script, I was really touched. I don’t think there was dry eye after the reading.”

Additional script changes followed, which cut the show to three hours. “At least I was around to make my own cuts, unlike Shakespeare, who often gets massacred,” Boynton chuckled.

The play

Boynton cautions his audience not to expect a production similar to “The Laramie Project” – or a historically accurate depiction of the hate crime. “The first thing to realize is that, yes, it’s in verse. And it has very little to do with the actual facts of Matthew Shepard’s murder. The only thing that stays ‘accurate’ is that a young, gay college student in nameless Middle America named Matthew Shepard gets killed in a gay hate crime and is tied to a fence.”

Everything else, the playwright noted, is a complete fabrication. “Did I really want to do a historically accurate interpretation to capture [Matthew’s] plusses and minuses? That really doesn’t matter to me. He was who he was. I didn’t want to write a play about whether or not he deserved it. That’s atrocious. To me, he’s a human being, and that’s all that matters. And what happened to him was terrible.”

In Boynton’s play, there are four men – fellow college students of Matt – who conspire to commit the crime – a la ‘Julius Caesar.’ And the story isn’t so much about Matthew’s journey, but of his close-knit friends – one black and the other a feminist. It’s overall theme, however, rings true despite its differences. “Everyone’s a human being, and you shouldn’t perpetrate violence against another human being,” Boynton said.

Something a professor at the University of Wyoming told Kucharek while he was preparing for the role put the events into perspective for him: The Matthew Shepard that lived is not as important as the Matthew Shepard who died. “While that sounds a little rough, he became something. It’s a lesson that hopefully a lot of people will learn from,” Kucharek concluded.

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