Review, Rewind

A Mad World: The United States Theatre Project’s ‘columbinus’ Goes Inside the Typical All-American High School — And Tears it Apart

This past weekend’s viewing of A Shot Away had me reminiscing about other docudramas I’ve enjoyed over the years.  Jonathan Mandell noted how Red Fern’s production had reminded him of Jessica Blank and Erik Jensen’s The Exonerated, and I definitely agree; it had a lot of the same elements, including a lot of quote-worthy dialogue.  One other play that ASA had reminded me of was columbinus, a daring docudrama produced by The United States Theatre Project, in conjunction with New York Theatre Workshop.  

I often say that this was one of the plays that changed my life.  I had seen it with my AP English class my senior year of high school.  It was our last school trip as high schoolers, as well as our teacher, Mr. C.’s last as a high school teacher.  Mr. C. had always encouraged a love of the theatre in his students, bringing us out to the off-Broadway world and having legendary artists like Julian Beck and Judith Malina of The Living Theatre into the classroom.  For extra credit, he gave us an assignment where we had to review the play we had just seen.  The result is below — needless to say, I think I did very well!

Seeing columbinus changed how I thought about how theatre was performed and presented.  I realized that it wasn’t just merely another medium used to entertain, but that it provided a forum for social commentary.  It also further cemented the feeling that I had of theatre being a community that I wanted to be a part of, and still hope to be a part of now.  

So without further ado, here’s the review that started it all.

Imagine you’re walking down a hall full of kids: of artists and jocks, of drama geeks and “gangstas,” of dreamers and slackers alike.  Each kid pushing and shoving, trying to make their way through the mad world of high school — or at least just the halls, anyway.  It seems like it’s just another ordinary day at school…except that it’s not.  Despite the proclamation inscripted on the walls, stating: Through these halls pass the finest kids in America, above all the pushing and shoving you hear a gunshot.  In that instant, everything you ever thought or known about high school has completely changed. 

Such is the impact that is made upon viewing a performance of columbinus, a courageous piece based on the 1999 Columbine High School shootings in Littleton, Colorado.  In the play, the first act starts off depicting various familiar archetypes that would haunt any high school in middle America.  In the scene entitled “Selection,” the message that the persona you fit into is something that you purposely choose upon entering high school is shown through each character literally choosing single identifying props for their archetype.  There was a makeup compact for the popular blonde; cigarettes for the rebellious misfit, who also happened to be the drama geek; a hat for the jock; glasses for the nerd, etc.  With Gary Jules’ song, “Mad World” playing in the background, a song so eerily familiar to those who’ve seen the cult classic Donnie Darko, the scene certainly captures high school at its most real. 

And it’s a mad world, indeed.

What pleasantly surprised me was the added depth to each of these everyday figures — they’re not as one-dimensional as we all think them to be.  In one scene, in which The Verve’s “Bittersweet Symphony” (also heard on another cult film, Cruel Intentions) propels a montage-like exploration into each character’s fears and weaknesses through individual spotlights.  We see the same misfit cutting herself, the popular blonde finding out she’s pregnant, and the resident religious girl having a crisis of faith.  As all of these characters line up on the edge of the stage, lip-synching to the song, we come to realize that theses are real people after all, hindered by their choice because they have no choice.

However, the play also starts off focusing on what we see as the everyday norm: the endless taunting and clique rivalries echo through the halls and in our minds.  From little incidents, such as ketchup packets being thrown at the “freaks,” to the isolation felt in the locker rooms, we see the familiar side of high school — its facade — and in it, we two teenagers living on the other side of the jeering, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris.  These two, of course,  are based on the actual mass murder duo also known as the “Trenchcoat Mafia.”  Decked out in cargo pants and military boots, along with their signature trenchcoats, both Klebold and Harris were seen as “different” — and for that, everyone had to pay the price.  Sick of having to endure the looks and the whispers day after day, Dylan and Eric start to devise a plan.

In the second act, the production portrayed a play-by-play of the events of April 20, 1999 — complete with documented recordings of 911 calls, as well as transcripts from conducted interviews with victims and actual images of the Mafia from surveillance feeds.  This portion of the production would certainly raise questions by the general public concerning possible exploitation of the victims and glorification of the murderers; how does one reenact a high school shooting?  Despite the questions raised, under P.J. Paparelli’s brilliant direction, raging violence was not on display here, but rather the poignant performances and unique talent of the entire columbinus company.  No longer in their stereotypical teenage garb, Anna Camp, Carmen Hurlihy, Nicole Lowrance, Joaquin Perez-Campbell and others recited actual accounts of the massacre in the library.  Here, they were not just “victims,” but people with strength and dignity, even in the face of a gun.

On that fateful April day, most of the 13 students who perished during the killing spree had been situated in the library.  Upon viewing Paparelli’s staged version of the library massacre, I was glad to see that the murderers were not given their heyday onstage.  Instead, they were left in the background while the rest of the company was at the forefront, making sure that the stories of the lives taken that day were heard over the sounds of “gunshots,” caused by the two villains banging  on the back wall.  This would come to symbolize memories begging to be heard over the deafening sounds trying to silence them into the ground.  For certain moments when victims were met with a gun, it had been staged so that the killers did not directly face them.

While I had been thoroughly impressed with the cast members playing the victims, I had been equally enthralled by the performances of both Will Rogers and Karl Miller, who played Klebold and Harris, respectively.  Throughout the production, I felt that these two had captured the essence of what it’s like as a disenfranchised youth in America today.  I felt Miller’s performance, particularly, to be intense, yet slightly vulnerable at the same time.  As for Rogers, I found him to be a great source of comedic relief during the “Instant Message” scene, as well as equally unwavering in his performance towards the end.  

All in all, columbinus is a surprisingly poignant, thought-provoking look at high school life and the ways it can manifest into something as self- (and mass-) destructive as a shooting.  You leave the theatre wondering how such an atrocity could happen in an adult-supervised world like high school.  Questions plague your mind and you suddenly reevaluate everything, because you realize that the people you just saw onstage reflect people you see everyday in the halls.  They’re the same people you wave hello to, cheat off of in science class,  or just plain ignore.  

Most importantly, you ask yourself one question above all others: Why? 

Images courtesy of New York Theatre Workshop. columbinus ran from May 5 – June 11, 2006 at the New York Theatre Workshop.


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