‘Columbinus’ digs deeper than the real-life massacre
Without doubt, reactions to “Columbinus,” the three-act, part-imagined, part-non-fictional, altogether stunningly realized exploration of the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colorado, runs the gamut.
A shattering sense of shock and awe? Yes, despite all the outrage and numbness that has accrued with subsequent mass shootings. Feelings of deep ambivalence? Beyond any doubt. Catharsis? This is elusive. The guilt of the voyeur? Most definitely.
So it is quite obvious that writers Stephen Karam and PJ Paparelli (the latter also has devised the near-balletic staging for this American Theatre Company production, “a world premiere of the revised version” first seen in Chicago in 2008) have done something right. It is often difficult to watch “Columbinus,” yet you watch it compulsively.
The show’s eight actors, in jeans and khakis, t-shirts and hoodies, arrive onstage before the lights dim and quickly explain its structure.
It begins with an all-too-real vision of a big American high school where bullying, cliques, racism, homophobia and high-octane adolescent insecurity are in full play, and where we first see Freak (the slender, compact, handsome Matt Bausone, who will morph into shooter Eric Harris), and his friend, Loner (tall, gaunt, graceful Eric Folks, who will become his friend and fellow shooter, Dylan Klebold). This may well be the most riveting section of the show, with Freak and Loner’s inner monologues during sessions with a guidance counselor among the most authentic pieces of writing — revealing the rage, insight, disgust and disconnect felt by many smart, alienated teens with acerbic senses of humor.
The second act is devoted to the catastrophic friendship between the boys. Eric is the whip-smart, volatile, bipolar kid with a chest deformity and a dad whose job in the military has resulted in frequent moves. The awkward, sensitive Dylan, a gifted (if ghoulish) writer who fails in attempts to connect with both the arty “goth” girl, “Rebel” (heat-generating Sadieh Rifai) and the serious Christian, “Faith” (the wonderfully expressive Leah Raidt).
We observe the boys’ escalating fascist mindsets as they plan and execute the massacre, the missed clues, Dylan’s fraught second-thoughts about their inevitable suicides, and the panic, chaos and terror of the massacre itself.
And then there is “the aftermath,” which unspools over the years, with the real-life testimony of a survivor (Rob Fenton) who now has kids of his own; a sheriff (Kelly O’Sullivan) on the case; a preacher (Jerod Haynes) who had to preside over the funeral of one of the shooters; the parents of kids who survived or died. We hear from Columbine’s upbeat principal (played to subtly satiric perfection by Tyler Ravelson, who has another fine turn as a friend of one of the shooters who was warned to stay away and remained silent. There is the buried police report. There is the devastating letter penned by Dylan’s mother. And of course there are all the abiding questions and blame and guilt. Best of all is the emergence of human nature in a show that also muses on the true meaning of “survival of the fittest.”
The design of the show is spare but potent. The impact of “Columbinus” is thundering.