nytheatre.com review by Fred Backus
May 22, 2006
It's been seven years since the Columbine High School massacre took place on April 20, 1999, when two high school students went on a shooting spree that left 13 people dead and 24 wounded after their attempt to kill hundreds more by blowing up the school's cafeteria failed to come off as planned. While it's been a while since I've thought about Columbine, I remember that at the time, the incident commanded the attention of the nation and stood at the center of cultural debate in this country, sparking discussions about youth subcultures, school bullying, gun control laws, racism, parental negligence, police incompetence, and the possibly chilling effects of violence in the music, movies, television shows, and video games being consumed by American teenagers.
columbinus, a new theatrical work by a group calling itself The United States Theatre Project, addresses all of these issues in one fashion or another, but it is the alienation and crises of identity among high school teens that it chooses to focus on as its primary field of interest. Drawing upon the extensive evidential material related to the shootings—including the journals and video confessions of the killers themselves, as well as interviews with residents of Littleton, Colorado (the town where Columbine is located) and teenagers across the country—director PJ Paparelli and his cast of eight have created an archetypical high school filled with archetypical teenagers in order to help explain how and why the killings might have taken place.
The first act begins with a series of what feel like sociological experiments illustrating high school culture and society. For example, in "Selection," the performers enact a ritual of both personal choice and Darwinian struggle as they choose common items that act as symbols of identity, such as eyeglasses, a baseball cap, and a makeup compact. In "Identity," the teens—who are now transformed into familiar models like the Nerd, the Jock, and the Popular Girl—struggle to define each other and themselves. Juxtaposing external interactions with inner thoughts, Act One of columbinus continues along this path, creating a compelling world of lonely and confused adolescents hiding behind socially constructed stereotypes, reaching out to and then lashing out at each other in a universe of insecurity and uncertainty. Along the way we meet the two youths that represent Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris—the two perpetrators of the Columbine massacre—who fare the worst in this struggle to define and assert their own identities.
Like the John Hughes teen movies of the 1980s—and in many of the same specific ways—columbinus universalizes the high school experience in terms of a struggle for identity and acceptance (the montage at the end of the first act to The Verve's "Bittersweet Symphony" feels almost like an homage to the filmmaker's style), and while the take may not be all that original, it is skillfully directed and convincingly portrayed by a talented cast who consistently hit their marks. Furthermore, Paparelli and co-writer Stephen Karam have done a fine job constructing a text from their source materials that has the feeling of authenticity in terms of how real high school students might express their views of both their peers and themselves. Nevertheless, casting the events of Columbine in terms of a universal high school experience for me presents problems, for even the most alienated teens do not usually team up in an attempt to commit mass murder. Columbine was not a universal event, and an examination of the social pressures and anxieties of high school does little to illuminate how the pain of alienation triggered such a shocking and violent outcome.
When columbinus does choose to look at individuals, it focuses not on the victims, but on the killers, and as the second act of columbinus shifts away from high school archetypes to a portrayal of Klebold and Harris themselves, the piece seems to get more and more lost in what questions it is trying to keep alive. In spite of two excellent performances by Will Rogers and Karl Miller, and a well-scripted theatrical adaptation of the notes and home videos of Klebold and Harris, the shift from the archetypical to the literal seems arbitrary, and the two oddly fitting halves do little, either jointly or individually, to bring any new perspectives or insights to this tragic event.
The most arresting moment in columbinus is its stark retelling of the massacre, including an audio re-enactment of the first 911 call from a teacher and a grim moment-to-moment play-by-play of the terrifying ordeal in the school library where most of the killings took place. It is here that the piece is the most chillingly effective, but it is here also that the rest of the piece's attempts to contextualize and explain feel largely inadequate. The social constructs, personal psychologies, and cultural debates that are probed and illustrated up to this point are largely blown away by sheer incomprehensibility and terror of the retelling.
But it is not the teens, the killers, or even the event itself that gets the last word here, but the adults. In the few final moments of the piece, the ensemble takes on the voices of the confused and grieving parents and other adults directly affected by the event. It seems a rushed and odd choice, given that up to this point the adults represented in columbinus are so ineffectual and detached. Perhaps the point is to show how removed adults are from the world and cares of the teenagers in their lives, but given the focus of the piece and the research that was done, the group I'd most like to hear discuss the repercussions of Columbine are the teenagers who continue to face the social pressures that the piece implies played a role in leading up to the killings.
Most noticeably absent from columbinus are the victims themselves, and this missing element most clearly brings to bear the limitations of the universalizing approach of the piece as a whole. Of the actual 13 victims who were killed at Columbine, the piece tells us only their names, what social categories they might have fallen into, and how they died. Although columbinus ends with a somber blackboard memorializing the names of the victims, the piece as a whole treats the targets of the shootings as broad, if sympathetic, archetypes. By omitting the individuality of all but the killers, columbinus ultimately seems to miss what may be the heart of the actual tragedy.