American Theater Company’s columbinus Carries On The Conversation About The Tragedy

Jeffrey Limoncelli ’16/ Emertainment Monthly Staff

American Theater Company’s columbinus depicts the events and reactions during and surrounding the shootings at Columbine High School on April 20, 1999. Written by Stephen Karam and PJ Paparelli and directed by Mr. Paparelli himself, columbinus is split into three acts: Act I takes the audience through a typical day in the lives of various teenagers, including Freak and Loner, who become the Columbine killers, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris; Act II focuses on the minds of the killers as they plan the specifics of, then follow through with, the shooting; Act III is a series of monologues from families, friends, and those involved with the events of that tragic day, from 1999 until the present. As Mr. Paparelli writes in the program’s Director’s Note, “colombinus is not a play – it is a theatrical discussion”. The best way to discuss columbinus is to break it down into its three acts.

Act I was very much a narrative play. Attempting to give voice to various high school types (jock, goth, geek, princess, Catholic, prep, and loner) and illustrating the difficult relationships the soon-to-be shooters had with their peers, this act does nothing more than provide a very shallow overview of high school life. Mr. Paparelli, according to the Director’s Note, along with “a group of multi-generational theatre artists, under the moniker of the United States Theatre Project” spent three years having “conversations with suburban teenagers in several American cities”. However, instead of illustrating characters developed with brutal honesty and insight, the act seemed more like an over-stylized summary of a Degrassi episode. The shooters and their interactions with bullies, teachers, and parents were introduced. However, as many studies on Columbine indicate, Harris and Klebold were not the bullied loners this act made them out to be. Theatrical flair replaced in-depth writing. Mr. Paparelli’s stylish direction watered down this act’s character development. At the end of the act, the actors lip-synced The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony” in a visual, music video-like scene. Yes, the song fit very well with the characters and their feelings, but three years of interviews should have provided something more for the writers to say.

Matt Bausone and Eric Folks in columbinus. Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow.
Matt Bausone and Eric Folks in columbinus. Photo Credit: Michael Brosilow.

During Act II, Klebold and Harris planned and followed through with their attack. Both Matthew Bausone (Freak/Eric Harris) and Eric Folks (Loner/Dylan Klebold) succeeded in transforming into their roles. As Harris and Klebold planned their attack, we learned more about them. By allowing the two characters to speak their minds, their reasoning and justification for the shooting became clearer. However, the insight into Harris and Klebold this act provides does not fit with the implication that their problems in high school and at home were their driving motive, as suggested in Act I. Harris, the mastermind behind the plan, came across as a true psychopath, more concerned with the joy of murder than a precise motive. Klebold came across as a more depressed type, easily influenced by Harris’ persuasiveness. This short but powerful act proved more effective than Act I. Mr. Paparelli’s style was minimal in comparison, and, without revealing specifics of the staging, Act II illustrated real teenagers, real people, with real emotion.

Act III resembled a similar style to The Laramie Project, with the ensemble taking the form of actual people and speaking their testimonies. Reactions beginning from the day of the massacre to the present day are spoken, and all are compelling. The phrase “theatrical conversation” makes the most sense in this act, as the different voices of those involved are heard. Sad and funny, but always powerful, hearing the real voices speak allowed for a real conversation about motives, blame, and the difficulty and importance of moving forward. Nothing was given a clear answer, but the conversation then became internal as the audience was forced to absorb what they heard and saw, while carrying the conversation forward.

columbinus was intense not solely in its depiction of the shooting and its reactions, but in the thoughts and questions it left in the minds of the audience. The performance succeeded in raising awareness about the event, even though it did not provide as in-depth of an insight into the shooters, teenage problems and gun violence it could have. Just as different people viewed the massacre differently, everyone leaving the theater after columbinus had varying reactions. Some carried on the conversation with their friends, and others internalized it. But if a theatrical discussion like colombinus helps to continue the conversation about the various factors leading to a tragedy, then it has succeeded.

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