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This uneven work about the Columbine massacre features some powerful moments but lacks complexity. logo
Will Rogers (with gun) and Karl Miller in columbinus
(Photo © Carol Rosegg)
On April 20, 1999, two teenage boys brought guns into Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. They shot and killed 12 students and one teacher, wounded many others, then turned the guns upon themselves. The United States Theatre Project's columbinus, now at New York Theatre Workshop, is what director PJ Paparelli terms "a theatrical discussion" based upon this incident. Written by Paparelli and Stephen Karam, with dramaturgy by Patricia Hersch, this uneven work has some powerful moments but lacks the complexity necessary for a full exploration of its subject matter.

The production gets off to a rough start with a "Morning Ritual" that features the company waking up, dressing, and preparing to go to school; the sequence seems banal and unnecessary. We're then introduced to the "types" that can be found in high schools across the country, identified in the script as "Perfect" (Anna Camp), "Jock" (Joaquín Pérez-Campbell), "AP" (James Flanagan), "Rebel" (Carmen M. Herlihy), "Faith" (Nicole Lowrance), "Prep" (Bobby Steggert), "Freak" (Karl Miller), and "Loner" (Will Rogers). The actors playing Freak and Loner are the ones who eventually morph into Columbine shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.

The first act is not specifically set at Columbine; the authors want to make the point that what happened there could conceivably happen anywhere. The audience hears the inner voices of the various boys and girls depicted, their words based on interviews that the writers conducted with high school students from across the country. Unfortunately, most of the monologues barely scratch the surface of the these peoples' lives; they come across as clichéd and uninteresting. The sequences in Act I that concern Harris and Klebold have a stronger focus, and those in which the Freak and Loner are persecuted by their classmates -- particularly by Jock and Prep -- help to humanize these characters.

The second act focuses on the events leading up to, including, and following the Columbine shootings. There's a gut-wrenching quality to the proceedings, as we all know that we're no longer watching abstract scenes of teenage angst. Dialogue is taken directly from Harris and Klebold's journal entries, web postings, and videos, as well as police archives and interviews with Columbine residents. Listening to a 911 call made by a teacher and to surviving students' testimony about that fateful day is a harrowing, visceral experience.

Miller and Rogers deliver strong performances as the killers, portraying not only their violent, sociopathic tendencies but also their doubts, fears, hopes, and confusion. The production allows the audience to empathize with these young men while still being repulsed by their vengeful actions. The remaining ensemble members do capable work, although they play their first act "types" too broadly, for which Paparelli must share the blame. On the plus side, the depiction of the actual shootings doesn't seem exploitative.

The set, designed by Tony Cisek, is dominated by an enormous blackboard that doubles as a projection screen. Dan Covey's lighting effectively sets the mood and tone, while Miranda Hoffman's costumes help establish the various characters' personalities. Sound designer Martin Desjardins does a fine job throughout the production and deserves extra credit for the deafening gunfire that chillingly echoes and reverberates throughout the auditorium during the massacre.

This show asks some tough questions about who should be blamed for what happened at Columbine. Obviously, Harris and Klebold are the guilty parties, but could the tragedy have been prevented if they were treated differently by their parents, teachers, counselors, and/or fellow students? Would there have been an alternate outcome if the police had handled the situation better? The authors are to be commended for refusing to suggest neat answers to such questions, but they miss some opportunities to explore them in a really hard-hitting fashion; for example, it would have been interesting to hear one of the jocks who picked on Harris or Klebold respond to the massacre. Paparelli, Karam, and Hersch also soft-pedal the potential responsibility of the killers' parents by having their sons speak from beyond the grave and absolve them of any blame; a stronger choice would have been to let the parents' remarks stand on their own.

Still, columbinus is a thought-provoking and worthwhile endeavor, one that is sure to engender discussions about this horrible moment in American history.

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