Riding Shotgun: columbinus — Was adolescence ever quite like this?


Last month, _[columbinus][columbinus]_, the brainchild of the United States Theatre Project, had its premiere at the [Roundhouse Theatre][roundhouse] in Silver Spring, Maryland. Next month, it will open at Perseverance Theatre in Juneau, where P.J. Paparelli — one of the piece’s playwrights and a founder of the Theatre Project — serves as artistic director. Can’t make it to Alaska in May? That’s alright. Give it a little time and this play will make its way to you.

_columbinus_ is, if you haven’t gleaned from the name, about the [April 20, 1999 killings][columbine] at Columbine High School where students Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris shot dead 12 of their fellow students, a teacher and then themselves. It’s an incident that still festers, unexplained and unresolved, in the nation’s consciousness. And while it might go unthought-of for a period of time, it inevitably makes its way back onto the table for discussion — [last month's killings at Red Lake][redlake] saw to that.

Using an emotionally-charged event like Columbine as inspiration for art is a risky proposition, whatever the incident and whatever your motives. Sometimes it works, such as in the case of _[The Laramie Project][laramie]_, where the Tectonic Theatre Project conducted interviews with Laramie, Wyoming residents connected to the brutal murder of Matthew Shepard in 1998. Most times it doesn’t.

And while _The Laramie Project_ was cobbled together entirely from interviews and the journals of theatre company members, _columbinus_ takes a different approach. While the members of the United States Theatre Project did go to Littleton and conduct interviews and gather transcripts and other original material, much of _columbinus_ is supposition, using fiction to fill in the blanks of the lives of Eric and Dylan.

Most of the play deals with not so much the actual shooting, but what these kids were like or could have been like. The question that has weighed on this country’s mind like a stone has been, “How could this happen?” And this play almost casually makes the suggestion, “Well, how about like this?”

There are a thousand ways the playwrights could have fucked this up — pitfalls and blind alleys and bad, bad decisions that would have critics cringing and audiences wondering “Why, sweet Jesus, why?” And somehow the playwrights and, possibly more importantly, the actors managed to avoid all of them.

> _Time and Place: From a fictional high school in suburban America to Littleton, Colorado, days prior to and including April 20, 1999._

That’s how they get away with it. Act I is almost purely a work of fiction. It imagines a high school much like Columbine. It imagines the students that would populate it. Archetypal, John Hughes-style kids: the jock, the nerd, the “Goth” chick, the God chick, the popular slut. And, of course, a pair of nameless kids who can’t seem to fit in anywhere. In the audience’s minds, of course, they aren’t nameless. We know that these are Eric and Dylan and, come Act II, they’re going to go on a rage-fueled rampage. So while the playwrights might say this is Anywhere, USA, to the audience it’s Littleton, Colorado.

The first act is fast-paced and highly stylized. There’s an almost hip-hop rhythm to much of the language as well as some truly hilarious moments. We watch these students step into the class structure of high school and build up the simple social characteristics that distinguish the popular from the nobodies. And with freeze-frame moments — monologues that give us glimpses into what these students are thinking — the playwrights break down those stereotypes.

Even these moments are somewhat cliché (the gregarious bully as closet homosexual) but it comes through as startlingly honest and not the least bit shallow. That’s due in part to some deft line reads and the sheer skill of the actors. The text is not filled with the sort of multisyllabic, Kevin Williams-style teenage psychobabble that most 16-year-olds couldn’t read, much less say. It’s filled with the kind of shit that teenagers actually spew — facile, overwrought trivialities that might make you wonder how these beings will ever grow up to be functioning adults.

As an adult a decade removed from high school, Act I evoked with ease the casual cruelties and magnified injustices of adolescence: the lunchroom social strata, the beatings and embarrassments, the feeling of disconnection and helplessness. It draws the line without being obvious about it between those kids who believe that high school is the best four years of their lives and those who cannot wait to escape it. The play makes it easy to identify with these generalized personality types that will, later in the play, evolve into mass murderers. The audience goes into intermission shaken, stirred, not wondering so much why teenagers channel their anger and alienation into violence, but why it doesn’t happen more often.

Act II is a very different animal. Immediately the two actors, who in Act I were only suggested to be Dylan and Eric, are identified clearly. Their names are spoken and photos of the actual boys are projected on the back wall of the stage. The black humor from the first half of the play is reprised only briefly, with the boys acting out a petty crime spree that ends in a broken van window, some stolen electronics, and admission into the juvenile deterrent program.

Most of Act II is constructed from real-life sources: juvenile deterrent records, home videos made by Dylan and Eric prior to the killings and interviews with students in the school that day as well as with family and community members. The only real piece of supposition in Act II is a scene titled “What If…?” that shows the boys discussing whether either is afraid of their impending death. The biggest chunk of the act is a kill-by-kill walkthrough of the shootings in the Columbine High School library as told by students who survived it. It’s detailed almost to the point of clinical, and several minutes too long.

Oddly enough, for me, this part of the play that is the most documentary rings the least true. The two “nameless” teenagers whom I sympathized with in the first act had been identified but simultaneously stripped of personality. They had traded faces for trigger fingers. Maybe this shift in focus is a kind of cop-out for the playwrights. Fictionalizing the thoughts of Eric and Dylan as they stalked their classmates through the hallways might have been a little too controversial, a little too much of a risk.

Maybe they just wanted to relegate the majority of the fiction to Act I. But I know I would have liked to have seen it, or seen what the playwrights imagined it to be. If they could imagine the two boys talking about their anticipation of murder and death in Eric’s basement, I think they could have given us more than the barest glimpse of what they were thinking during the event. It’s as if the play went somewhere very personal and poignant and then wandered away into flashbulbs and melodrama.

The play then moves into the aftermath, using interviews with the Klebolds, parents of other students, and a priest. While this is all drawn text verbatim from real-life, it has the effect of disengaging the audience even further, drawing them away from the heart of the story conceived in Act I. I can imagine that with hours of taped interviews and transcripts from students, parents and community members, the theatre company felt they had a duty to include those voices, to give these people a venue for their questions, their confusion and their pain.

But these voices have been heard many, many times before. In the days and weeks and months following the shootings, everyone who was connected in any way to that shooting was interviewed ad nauseum. And while society might benefit from hearing them again, from experiencing thirdhand that fear and dread and horror, I don’t think the play benefits much.

There has been a sentence, a sentiment, that has crept into nearly every review I’ve read of this play, and that’s that it ends up leaving the audience with more questions than answers. It’s hideously cliché but it’s true. _columbinus_ is a catalyst for conversation, not an essay on how children become killers. That little bit of the drama is somewhere in the gaping hole between Acts I and II. The play surmises the building blocks of rage and alienation and then shows us the outcome. But it doesn’t even hint at that moment when the decision is made to turn fantasy into fact, that hair’s-breadth degree between the inner turmoil, the pent-up frustration and anger that so many experience in their youth, and the decision that the anger is all important — more so than living.

And that’s certainly for the best. It highlights the fact that, for all the talk of efforts to prevent such things from happening, society has no idea what to do because it doesn’t know why these things happen. And it makes blaming [video game][uaclabs] violence and heavy metal music seem as fatuous as it really is.

As I understand it, the playwrights are still making changes to the script based on the performances in Maryland and Alaska, so the problems I see in the production might very well vanish by the time _columbinus_ makes its way to larger venues. And it certainly will. It’s one of the best new plays of the year, hands down, and it makes the case for theatre as a socially relevant art form.

[columbinus]: http://www.round-house.org/silverspring.htm
[columbine]: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Columbine_High_School_massacre
[roundhouse]: http://www.round-house.org/
[redlake]: http://news.google.com/news?q=red%20lake%20killings
[laramie]: http://www.time.com/time/classroom/laramie/
[uaclabs]: http://www.worldlynx.net/bent/misc/uaclabs/

Article © 2005 by Steve Spotswood