I’m nervous about theatre that’s good for me. This includes important plays, pertinent plays, plays about politics, and plays addressing significant issues. Seeing these plays is almost a civic responsibility, like voting. I feel responsible to see them, and I want to see them, but only once.
The fear I have is the playmakers and audiences will be grave and portentous about the subject; and since it is such a "serious" topic, I have to be reverent about the play or look like a heretic.
"columbinus" is an "important play." In light of recent and reoccurring events it could not be more pertinent. It’s an significant issue and it’s based on a true story. Furthermore, anyone with the slightest bit of empathy will leave the theatre emotionally devastated.
Even though "columbinus" may be good for me, it’s also just good theatre -- suspenseful, heart-wrenching and (dare I say it) even funny.
The play uses a variety of documentary devices -- not to report an incident, but to explore the universal mysteries surrounding the event at Columbine High School.
It has a three-act structure with two intermissions, very unusual for contemporary theatre but surprisingly effective. The play asks you to contemplate, and it gives you respites between the action of each act to consider that material you have just watched and talk about it with other audience members. (I also noticed a lot of people hugging each other and saying, "I love you" during these intermissions.)
The play calls itself a "theatrical discussion." The ensemble greets the audience in the beginning of the play and gives us a map of where we are going. They also say goodbye to us, in unison, at the end of the play. It’s a very theatrical experience, reminiscent of a Greek chorus. This play is very much an ensemble piece; the suburban community surrounding this school is the play’s protagonist.
The first act could be a coming of age comedy/drama, almost like something out of a John Hughes film. (Think of a slightly darker version of "The Breakfast Club.") Actors confront a series of objects, pieces of apparel. All but two characters pick-up and wear an item that defines their personality: A pair of glasses, a crucifix, or a ball cap. Just like in high school people are defined as types by what they wear, here we peek into the lives of adolescents who are only remarkable because they are so ordinary.
Because the dialogue is ripped from interviews with real people, we get a distinctly documentary feeling from this experience. As the act progresses, we follow the evolution of two boys planning to execute an apocalyptic event at their high school with pipe bombs and guns.
We know what’s going to happen. This is a suspenseful build-up to the horrible events that happened at Columbine High School, but these aren’t really the voices of the people who were involved in that tragedy. These are character types that could be in any American high school, but these voices are so authentic that we instantly place them in Littleton, CO.
We watch a collection of fragmented moments that create the mood of the play and express a universal angst. For instance, a girl talks to her mother about how she was date raped in her bedroom while her mother was in the next room. Subsequently, we see that the girl is pregnant. This is not actually taken from the words of a Columbine High School student, but it paints a real and painful portrait of adolescence.
In the second act, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold become actual, named, characters. (Previously they were general types called Rebel and Loner.) This act contains one amazing, fictionalized scene where these individuals confront each other days prior to the incident. This is the point of no return. This is the moment that we hope everything can change and that some how the event will not actually happen. Even in it’s ugliness, this is the moment that the antagonist truly become human and maybe even a little sympathetic in our eyes. In the next moment all that will be gone.
The event itself is covered in different ways. First of all, we have the actual recording of a 911 call made by a woman in the school library where much of the bloodshed happened. Then we have testimony from witnesses in the incident. Some of this seems directly transcribed and authentic, like when a student recalls the experience of another student dying next to her. Other parts seem filled in for narrative, like when she also describes the caliber of bullet used to kill her classmate.
The production makes full use of music, lighting, projection and spectacle to tell the story. Particularly effective are the sound effects and design transitioning us in and out of scenes and soliloquy, introspection and narration.
This is a very tightly constructed theatrical experience developed through at least 11 year of iterations, and the hard work shows. But the third act is relatively new; it explores the aftermath of the Columbine shootings through hours of interviews with survivors, family members and the community.
This act is an amazing docu-theatre experience and really testifies to the potential of the genre. For instance, we hear a long monologue from a coach who was part of the incident and still teaches at the school.
This guy reminds you of some of your own teachers. He’s a real character -- sometimes he dresses up like Barry Manilow at the school assemblies. He’s friendly with everyone, but he follows the rules and doesn’t show favoritism, even to his own children.
When this coach address what happened at his high school 14 years ago and how he feels about that now he’s full of platitudes and clichés. He talks as though he’s got this whole thing figured out.
His voice is so real that we really feel we know this guy. All we have is this man’s words, but we feel him in the room. We don’t realize that he is filtered through the lens of an actor who sees thing that perhaps even the coach himself doesn’t see. Underneath the surface we realize that this educator is just as confused about the whole thing as we are.
No one can really get inside the heads of the two young men who killed 13 people in Columbine High School. It would be an act of hubris to try. As an audience we are desperate to know why this happened and how we can prevent it from happening again, but in the end we will never completely understand.
"columbinus," presented by the American Theater Company, is part of the Art Emerson "World on Stage" series. The play continues through Sept. 29 at The Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theatre at the Emerson/Paramount Center.
For more information, please visit artsemerson.org/Online/default.asp?BOparam::WScontent::loadArticle::permalink=columbinus