Written by Stephen Karam and PJ Paparelli
An emotional look into a prescient abyss
|American Theater Company presents|
Review by Clint May
The reasons for producing and viewing a show that examines something of such magnitude as the Columbine High School massacre are multifold. Because he is my favorite author and said so many things better than most 20th century artists did on the nature of tragedy, I’ll let Mr. Kurt Vonnegut, Jr. sum the reasons up:
“Still and all, why bother? Here’s my answer. Many people need desperately to receive this message: I feel and think much as you do, care about many of the things you care about, although most people do not care about them. You are not alone.”
That is, incidentally, something that should be placed on the front of any manual for dealing with teens, with “You are not alone (tu non es solus)” replacing the asinine school mottos across the country. columbinus (intentionally uncapitalized, the textual equivalent of flying a flag at half mast) explores the incidents leading up to, during, and following the events that unfolded that fateful day. Using information gathered from transcripts, reports, interviews, combined with (and this is important) fictionalization, it’s a decidedly mournful polemic. American Theater Company has done a masterful job in bringing the script to updated life (it has and will likely continue to need revising from its original 2005 premiere). With surreal style and a surprising amount of levity and compassion, columbinus explores the issue in excruciating (though I stress again, not always exacting) detail that puts it on par with The Laramie Project as a relevant work of docudrama for the national discourse.
Many of the stylistic moments of the first scene are cinematic in their nature, beginning with an opening montage of archetypal students preparing for another ho-hum day at school. Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold are not clearly introduced right away, but take their form from the mass of undifferentiated stereotypes (Faith, Rebel, Prep, Jock, Freak, etc) of a John Hughes film. There’s some Saved by the Bell-esque time-freezes for the students to externalize their pathetic internalizations of alienation and doubt. Slowly, the characters of Eric (Matthew Bausone) and Dylan (Eric Folks) emerge, bonded by mutual estrangement from the surrounding artifices. There’s even a soundtrack with elements taken from Donnie Darko’s now famous “Mad World” and another montage scene straight out of Magnolia set to The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony.” These early moments remind us of the pains and bruises of being an adolescent no matter what rung of the social ladder you are/were on, and show us some of Dylan and Eric’s early warning signs that didn’t get checked hard enough.
Now the harrowing part you knew was coming. The set-up is torturous as we see the duo making their plans two days before their “Judgment Day.” Recording videos (“The Basement Tapes”), composing goodbye notes, and making their final justifications to each other and themselves. Harris, who conceived the attack, goads Klebold out of doubt and sets him up on the final path of escalating commitment. Gone is the cinematic flair, replaced with the brutality of the production’s own inferences mingled with the now-famous 911 call and reports from interviews taken later. The handling of the actual moments in the library are treated as both theatre and asides as students describe in raw detail the feel of blood spilling or the strange sounds and words the pair made on their rampage.
In the final act, we see both events that occurred in parallel and in the years since. Perhaps most chilling is hearing one parent learn of the shooting and doing some statistical math (my child is one in two-thousand, probably fine…). It reminded me of Sam Harris mentioning that though 20 children died on December 15 in Netwon, 55 million didn’t. Not exactly comforting, but everyone copes in a different way. There’s reports from nearly every facet of the tragedy: parents of both victims and the perpetrators, the police, faculty, etc. One surprise comes from one of the two’s friend – Brooks Brown – who finally admits something terrible he’s been carrying for these many years. Little else that is said is new to the discussion per se, and yet hearing it again is something we the living owe to the victims of all the tragedies we’ve witnessed then and many times since. Listening to the struggle two women have gaining traction for a monument to the victim’s is reminiscent of The Laramie Project: 10 Years Later, when it detailed Laramie’s own wish to ignore tragedy and return to “a new normal” that distances itself from infamy.
Bausone and Folks create some absolutely fascinating portraits as the “Freak” and “Loner,” Eric and Dylan. In life, Dylan and Eric’s friendship was perhaps one born more of shared pain and less of shared interests, and Bausone is a lovelorn, homely man to Folks’ bombastic, bipolar psychopath. Paparelli’s direction coaxes some excellent performances (it’s always hard to play a teenager unselfconsciously) from the entire ensemble. It’d be interesting if the stylistic choices of the first scene were carried through the entire production, painting a kind of Guernica of theatre, and perhaps future productions will do so as columbinus evolves along with our sensibilities. There’s definitely a more polished (a strange word to use when describing something as inherently chaotic as a massacre) feel to the first two scenes as compared to the final. This is not surprising, as many of the elements come from new interviews conducted in the months prior to the premiere. They ramble a bit but are essential for context. Listening to a policeman recount the scene (and more disturbingly, what they’ll never reveal), or the principal, or the survivors—it all weaves a tapestry of pain and hope, confusion and resolve. Many a face was holding back tears as I looked around the audience; my own were blurring up at the edges as well.
Before going to see columbinus, and I do recommend it, I also recommend reading Greg Toppo’s USAToday article. Factual inaccuracies may always be a part of works like this because we can never know every single absolute truth. columbinus has some “In Cold Blood”-like elements incorporated that lends some dark, intractable solipsism to a the simple tale of bullied teens getting revenge on the world that wronged them—a story that so many wanted to believe in the aftermath.
As I started with a Vonnegut quote, I’ll end with another, one that could be inscribed in a theoretical manual for anyone who lived through that day and continues to witness tragedies like it. Judging from the professions of many of the survivors (nurses, counselors, etc), they’ve taken it to heart already:
“What should young people do with their lives today? Many things, obviously. But the most daring thing is to create stable communities in which the terrible disease of loneliness can be cured.”
columbinus continues through March 10th at American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron (map), with performances Thursdays and Fridays at 8pm, Saturdays 2pm and 8pm, Sundays 2pm. Tickets are $33-$43, and are available by phone (773-409-4125) or online through PrintTixUSA.com (check for half-price tickets at Goldstar.com). More information at atcweb.org. (Running time: 2 hours 30 minutes, includes two intermissions)
Photos by Michael Brosilow
Matthew Bausone (Freak, Eric Harris); Rob Fenton (Prep, Darrel Scott, Randy Brown, Lance Kirklin); Eric Folks (Loner, Dylan Kielbold); Jerod Haynes (Jock, Brian Stepp, Don Marxhausen, Betty Shoels); Kelly O’Sullivan (Perfect, Kate Battan, Emily Smith, Sue Townsend, Kirsten Kreiling); Leah Raidt (Faith, Ruth Feldman, Misty Bernall); Tyler Ravelson (AP, Tom Mauser, Frank DeAngelis, Brooks Brown); Sadieh Rifai (Rebel, Judy Brown, Doreen Tomlin, Diwata Perez)
behind the scenes
PJ Paparelli (Director), Christian Gero (Associate Sound Design), Anna Henson and Rasean Davonte Johnson (Projection Design), Jesse Klug (Lighting Design), G. “Max” Maxin IV (designer); Michael Leibenluft (First Assistant Director and Contributor), Andre Pluess (Sound Design), Mac Vaughey (Assistant Lighting Design), Josh Barrett, Sean McNall, Karl Miller, Michael Milligan, Will Roger (additional material), Julie Schroll, Michael Brosilow (photos)