columbinus Interprets the Columbine Shootings Into Must-See Theater

Wednesday, April 8, 2009
Phoenix New Times

When I got home from the theater the other night, I immediately updated my Facebook page. I typed a note to the virtual community that read, "Two things: 1. Go see columbinus at Stray Cat Theatre; 2. Ron May is a genius."

This is a theater review, not a trendy online chat space, so I'll elaborate here. columbinus is that rarest of things: a real theater experience, one that stays with you long after you leave its presence, perhaps longer than you'd like it to. Its director, Ron May, has really accomplished something here, creating entertainment (of a sort) from a darkly disturbing catastrophe of our recent past.

Stephen Karam and PJ Paparelli's script tells the rather grim story of the horrific events at Columbine High School in April 1999, when two teenage boys went on a killing spree, murdering a dozen students and one teacher before killing themselves. It does so with a cold realism that builds slowly, from a gently comic scene about waking up and starting the day — its actors vulnerable, prone and sleepy in underclothes — to a shattering, cacophonous climax.

The Columbine story doesn't really commence until Act Two, which is preceded by a crafty first act that both sets up the events at Columbine and comments on them. Act One cleverly presents the archetypes of every high school community — the asshole jock, the bitchy mean girl, the nerdy smart kid, the Goth chick — then shows us how that cultural construct led to the disaster at Columbine High. There's some banality in this section, as with blackouts that reveal the "true" character behind each stereotypical teen, and a section called "History Lesson" in which the sins of Cain and Abel are discussed.

But by the time the two characters identified only as The Freak and The Loner are transformed, in Act Two, into Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the murderous teens of Columbine infamy, we're already deeply unnerved by the callous yearning of all these awful kids. This second act is explosively brutal, noisy with yelps of vengeance, its dialogue based on home videos, personal journals, and interviews Harris and Klebold gave to counselors before the shootings. The descriptions of the actual killings are from police testimony of kids who were present, and these dreadful retellings are matched, documentary-style, with a cacophony of body slams and bellowing that make the whole thing all too real.

The acting is uniformly excellent, and positively illuminated by the presence of its two leads, each of whom approaches his role with a distinct and distinctly terrifying intensity. As Harris, Brandon Wiley is a hurricane of anger and cunning, spitting out pages of brutal dialogue without ever resorting to scenery-chewing. Kevin Herrmann's Klebold is the eye of that hurricane, a subtler but no less vengeful monster who briefly earns our sympathy in sequences where he sputters internal dialogues about why he wants out of his tormented teenaged life.

Also notable is Benjamin Burt's sweeping performance as the nasty jock whose sense of entitlement, we're shown, comes from a fear of becoming a bad kid himself. But the real star of the show is May, who has harnessed the mad anger of his young cast and turned it into something that's both beautiful and sometimes frightening to behold. He's made some brave choices, not the least of which is staging realistic violence, but his real triumph is making all the chaos of Columbine so watchable.

One of my Facebook friends wrote to me privately the morning after my columbinus post went up. "Why would I want to see such a violent, depressing show?" he asked. I wrote back, "Because you may never have another opportunity to see a contemporary tragedy reshaped into art. Go."