Volume 76, Number 2 | May 31 - June 6 2006


Written by: Stephen Karam and PJ Paparelli
Directed by: PJ Paparelli
Through June 11 at the New York Theater Workshop
79 East 4th Street, between Second Avenue and Bowery
212-460-5475, www.nytw.org

Photo by Carol Rosegg

Stephen Karam and PJ Paparelli recreate the lives of the murderers and victims of the Columbine school shootings in “columbinus,” showing at the New York Theater Workshop through June 11.

Teen shooting acquires new meaning on stage

By Steven Snyder

In the brave, unflinching and deeply disturbing “columbinus,” the audience is not so much transported back to the specific horrors of the 1999 Columbine High School massacre as immersed in the general frustration, fear, isolation and rage of today’s teenage America. Its makers regard it more as a “theatrical discussion” than a play, one that deals with both the present and the past, and the debate at hand is who should be counted among the victims of that gruesome day — the 13 who were killed, or all 15 — their killers included.

The timing of its New York debut is noteworthy. Following on the heels of the controversial Sept. 11 film “United 93,” many have started to question just how real is too real for a piece of entertainment. And here, that line is indeed a thin one. Created in conjunction with the United States Theatre Project, Karam and Paparelli have drawn on the experiences, opinions and anecdotes of hundreds of people, and have returned to Littleton, Colorado multiple times over the past seven years to gain insight into what it’s like to a be a child in a 21st century public school. Actual 911 calls made within the school are played as a transcript is projected on stage. The dialogue of actors Karl Miller and Will Rogers closely matches the actual words found in the home videos of Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, made prior to the attacks. Other characters are assassinated, one by one.

Yet while some may regard it, like “United 93,” as an exercise in reality being exploited rather than explored, I found “columbinus” an insightful piece means of elevating a conversation. This is not the story of what happened, but the story of why, and how.

Intentionally structured as two isolated halves, playwrights Stephen Karam and PJ Paparelli inform us first of the world that bred Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold before showing us what they became. Paparelli, as director, presents the story as a hyper, erratic affair that evokes the chaos of a teenager’s daily routine: school bells constantly interrupt the story as one aside is interrupted by another. But while the situations — the cafeteria, the after-school job, the hallway between classes — and the broad outlines of these characters — the jock, the nerd, the devout, the outcast — are familiar, what Karam and Paparelli hit on the head is how fragile these young lives are, and how little of a push they require to start their descent.

Early on, as the cast changes clothing on stage and assumes their characters, a number of inanimate objects are lowered from the ceiling and, one by one, these teens choose their identity. Some go for the sports cap but have it snatched away. Others go for the cigarettes, or the necklace with a cross on it. They are reaching for their identities, but the message is not about materialism; it’s about the fact that there’s only one of each object. In a flash these kids are divided, clinging to an identity and a clique that won’t let anyone else in.

For the first act, we watch as these “identities” turn kid against kid — the jock feels superior to the loner; the nerd ostracizes the young Christian. This is what squeezes Eric and Dylan to the fringe and what, through e-mails and instant messages, makes them so desperate to make a connection with anyone, even if it’s through a plot for revenge.

By intermission, they have put on their trench coats and assumed the silhouettes that are now a part of American history. And an eerie parallel exists between the two acts, as Eric and Dylan choose their victims by the very same objects and signifiers that made them outcasts in the first place.

This is not an apologist drama, however. It is not giving these killers a pass for their heinous acts, nor downplaying the hurt they caused. The attack of April 20, 1999 plays out in a series of excruciating sequences, and the goal of “columbinus” is not to dismiss that day’s horrors, but merely to juxtapose April 20th with the weeks and months before. And in doing so, it asks us to empathize with the fact that these were not monsters, but rather human beings who seized the opportunity to be monstrous.

The last, lingering issue that clearly continues to haunt Columbine’s community is this debate about the number of victims. Should the killers be regarded alongside the dead? Or should they be dismissed as perpetrators, or evil-doers?

I’m not sure “columbinus” dares to present an answer. But as the names of the dead are scribbled on a chalkboard in the final seconds, I was reminded of how the show began — the arbitrary nature of how these kids assumed their identity, and how integral that simple choice became in regards to who lived and who died; who made friends and who was ignored by the system.

This not a who-dunnit nor a psychological thriller, but a meditation on the tidal waves these kids are fighting every day; the struggles they must endure to merely stay afloat.

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