Twenty years on. And the horror of April 20, 1999 has not only not dissipated, but it also seems to have continually intensified with each mass school shooting. Virginia Tech. Sandy Hook. Parkland. Countless others that run together like one big blob of shameful gray in America’s collective mind under the mental banner of “another Columbine.” Since then, school shootings have come to occupy the doldrums of our culture. They happen. We stand slack jawed for a hot minute. Drop our heads. Shake our jowls. Do nothing. Repeat.
columbinus, written in 2003 and premiered at Round House Theatre in 2005 , is a study of that day and the teenage conditions that apparently led to Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris to kill 13 classmates and one teacher—in addition to injuring nearly two dozen others—in Littleton, CO. Act I follows eight “common” teens, each a composite drawn from numerous interviews, through a typical school day, starting with the morning ritual. There’s the Loner (Patrick Joy), the Freak (Rocky Nunzio), the Jock (Jonathan Del Palmer), AP (Brett Cassidy), Perfect (Thais Menendez), the religious fanatic known as Faith (Jennie Bissell), the Rebel (Alex Reeves), and the Prep (Joe Mucciolo).
In Act II, Loner and Freak become distinctly Klebold and Harris, who carry out their plan as the other actors recite testimony from the surviving victims, parents of the dead, and community members. Often in the dark as disembodied voices, trembling with fear and sometimes full of a restrained anger and even resignation, as flashes of light blink, indicating another shot.
It’s effective, pulling you in and appealing to a macabre fascination. All the actors step for a moment into the spotlight and shine. Cassidy has perhaps one of the hardest-to-hear snippets, relaying the words of the pastor who was asked to reside over Klebold’s funeral. Del Palmer as a grieving father identifying the body of his daughter, which he describes as looking better than he had imagined. Somber and gripping. All at once. As Joy and Nunzio stand above them all, dressed exactly as Klebold and Harris were then, surveying the carnage as if it is their masterpiece. For this stripped down, bare bones presentation of the day, directors Alex Levy and Juan Francisco Villa deserve serious praise.
As well done as Act II is, Act I unfolds in near slow-motion, dragging on a tad and saying very little other than high school is awful. Kids know they aren’t who they want to be or who their peers think they are and scorn the adults who try to keep them on some perceived track. Loner and Freak are the focus, and each is served taunts and teasing as well as being virtually unheard by a well-meaning guidance counselor. What does all this mean in relation to Columbine: an appeal for empathy? Understanding? Concern? All would be easy, except we know Loner and Freak will turn rampage killers, and it’s hard to muster anything but contempt for those two. Especially given the closing sequence, set to the Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony,” wherein each kid shows their innate sadness and the truth behind their lies.
closes April 20, 2019
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columbinus does succeed in capturing the mood of high school circa 1999 (I should know; that’s my era), from the attitudes prevalent at the time to the moody music of Tori Amos and Nirvana, and everything in between. But, as impactful as Act II is—using the words of the real players, including the 911 call made by teacher Pattie Nielson from the library where the majority of deaths occurred—as a docudrama, it is little more than a reliving of the moment, ending with snippets from parents in more recent years that confirm we’ve merely dropped our heads in unison. There is little by way of thoughtful commentary on the why of it all, which the play acknowledges. In 2003, what was there to say? columbinus is a full 15+ years old, and I can’t help but wonder what the playwrights imagined at its writing—surely, not that in 2019 we’d be still languishing in the doldrums, and believing that a retelling of April 20th, 1999 would be lesson enough to avoid its repeating.
columbinus, as merely a reaction to a horrible event once thought to be an anomaly, may have outlived its original intent and unintentionally does a disservice to those who died, using them as a means to the end. The end being to try to—not to justify Klebold and Harris—but to understand them. I’m uncomfortable that the names of the dead are forever reduced to chalk writings on sidewalks or projections scrolled over walls, while Harris and Klebold have lived on. They’ve gotten all they wanted. Infamy. Admirers. Copycats that have heralded them as inspiration. Because they were not the end. They never were.
Playwrights Stephen Karam (Humans) and PJ Paparelli couldn’t have known that in 2003. Couldn’t have foreseen the future. But, in being frozen a bit in time, columbinus does triumph in reflecting what we’ve learned since April 20, 1999: nothing.
columbinus by Stephen Karam and PJ Paparelli. Conceived by PJ Paparelli. Directed by Alex Levy and Juan Francisco Villa. Dramaturg Patricia Hersch. Featuring Jennie Bissel, Brett Cassidy, Patrick Joy, Thais Menendez, Joe Mucciolo, Rocky Nunzio, Jonathan Del Palmer, and Alex Reeves. Production: Set Design, Kathyrn Kawecki; Costume Design, Kelsey Hunt; Lighting Design, Conor Mulligan; Projections Design, Robbie Hayes and Patrick W.Lord; Sound Design, Kenny Neal; Props Design, Cindy Landrum Jacobs; and Rehearsel Stage Manager, Elizabeth Burch and Rebecca Talisman. Stage Managed by Laura Moody. Reviewed by Kelly McCorkendale.