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Columbinus
by Rob Kendt

©2006 Carol Rosegg
A scene from Columbinus
The rubber soles squeaking on the gym floor, the chalk dust, the pent-up, displaced hormoneswith a few simple gestures, Columbinus conjures a collective memory of high school that feels eerily, almost skin-crawlingly immediate. Even the restless, bubbling energy of the shows youthful eight-member cast suggests a pep rally, albeit one with a less exuberant subject than team spirit.

As if this shared time travel werent hair-raising enough, this production by the United States Theatre Project, now at the New York Theatre Workshop, inexorably grows more specific. The shows Anyschool, USA becomes the site of the 20th centurys last homegrown horror story, the Columbine High School massacre of April 20, 1999. Though the script by Stephen Karam and P.J. Paparelli unerringly, almost slavishly follows the multivoiced docu-theater outline of such antecedents as The Laramie Project or Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, Paparellis direction has a free-ranging, even frenetic power that feels authentically and painfully young. Even the shows less inspired momentsa random sampling of unrevealing postmortem commentary from residents of Littleton, Colorado, for instancebetray a touching, irresistible eagerness to get to the bottom of the mystery of why two seemingly average teenage boys would plot their own personal "judgment day." Crucially, Columbinus also has the adult integrity to let this question hang in the smoky aftermath.

The shows creators seem to have calculated that the inevitable climaxa chilling recreation of the infamous school library bloodbath that is mostly narrated rather than explicitly stagedwould be so harrowing and somber that the rest of the play, particularly the opening, should be pitched at perky peaks of adolescent fever. And so we get quick-cut, full-cast scenes that swarm through hallways, classrooms, cafeteria; we witness curt, tetchy dialogues with disembodied offstage voices of guidance counselors and teachers; were privy to furious instant-messaging exchanges between Dylan (Will Rogers) and Eric (Karl Miller).

The show is also admirably unafraid of sweeping, iconic generalizations, dubious as they may be. One wordless early sequence, scored to the same aching rendition of "Mad World" that figured prominently in Donnie Darko, has the cast choosing, almost arbitrarily, talismans from suspended traysa makeup case, dark-rimmed spectacles, a pack of cigarettes, a silver crucifix, a jocks capthat will define their roles in the high school hierarchy. The self-styled outcasts Dylan and Eric pointedly dont partake in this unnatural selection. The first-act break revisits this identity parade at a more advanced, less innocent stage, as the cast sings along with the chorus of "Bittersweet Symphony": "Im a million different people from one day to the next." If only.

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The characters that emerge in black trench coats as Dylan and Eric dont make for easy viewingnot only because theyre a hairs breadth away from the excitable, angry teens weve known or once were, but because the actors positively savor their sociopathic excesses.
©2006 Carol Rosegg
Anna Camp, James Flanagan,
& Joaquin Perez-Campbell
in Columbinus
Rogers, a likeable beanpole who bears an uncanny resemblance to the real-life Dylan Klebold, comes off as an easily impressionable sad sack spurred on by his partners uncontainable rage. As Eric Harris, the short-fused military brat who was the massacres main plotter, the haunting Miller has spiky blond hair and a ravaged look thats closer to heroin chic than cold-blooded jarhead fury.

Amid the plotting and execution of the massacre, the show subtly strikes its most disturbing notes. These media-savvy teens obsessively documented their plans and their ever-growing arsenal, even speculating that one day "the world will be studying these videos" for clues, and, more, that directors will vie for the rights to film their story. Its a chastening moment for even the most scrupulous documentarians when their subjects turn and essentially thank them for the memories. Karam and Paparelli stare down this challenge without flinching, memorializing both the massacres makers and its victims without blurring the lines between them.

For all its youthful questioning and empathy, this is the most grown-up thing about Columbinus: It holds up a mirror to evil and reflects not only the pathologies we can all too readily recognize in ourselves and in our violence-fixated culture, but also the inexplicable terrors that haunt our darkest nightmares. Thats a bigger and deeper inquiry than a mere high school social study.

Columbinus
By the United States Theatre Project
Written by Stephen Karam and P.J. Paparelli
Directed by P.J. Paparelli
New York Theatre Workshop

 
Print This Story / Send the Story to a Friend / 5/22/2006 4:00:00 PM

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