Columbine: an aquilegia with long-spurred flowers. Despite the elegance of this flower, the name “columbine” has become synonymous with terror, fear and death. On April 20, 1999, Eric Harris, and Dylan Klebold forever changed the public’s perception of the word as they killed 15 people, including themselves, at Columbine High School.
This summer, the Theatre Lab’s Summer Acting Institute for Teens, directed by Randy Baker, brilliantly handled Stephen Karam and P.J. Paparelli’s play columbinus, which unyieldingly depicts the events leading up to, during, and after the Columbine Mass Shooting.
columbinus began as a staged reading at Arena Stage in 2003, while the play was still in development. Karam and Paparelli created the play as more than just a fictional dramatization, utilizing quotes from the survivors of the shooting and even the shooters themselves to tell the story. The play eventually premiered in Silver Spring, MD before moving to Off-Broadway in 2006. There it received critical acclaim for its incite the struggles of high-school aged teens.
Although performed as a one-act, columbinus translates into two distinctive halves. The first is a fictionalized introduction to the students at Columbine High School, giving names to characters that adhere with their stereotypes (i.e. Jock, Loner, Rebel, Freak). It is in this first half where the relationships between the various students are established, with the “popular kids” ridiculing those who are less attractive, less wealthy and with less friends. However, the inner monologues of all students are presented, in which they confess their uncertainties.
In the play’s second half, the characters of Loner and Freak are identified as Klebold and Harris respectively, and the two conspire against their student body and all those who they believe are unworthy of life, before then committing their heinous crimes.
All elements of the production catered to the powerful and thought-provoking performance given last night. Kevin Laughon’s lighting design provided an excellent contrast during scenes when the characters were presenting their innermost thoughts and secrets, using intense blue light to signify that characters were speaking to themselves opposed to the white light used for the majority of scenes.
The set was simple, with three chalkboards and chairs, which allowed for a plethora of locations. Some actors would move the set pieces as needed, quickly changing the stage from a classroom to a bedroom to a cafeteria, while other actors wrote the location of each scene on the chalkboards.
The nuances of Randy Baker’s direction successfully laid an ominous tone throughout the play. For example, each scene change ended with the harsh slamming of the chairs to the ground, mimicking the sound of a gunshot and therefore foreshadowing the play’s climax.
The ensemble of young actors took on the horrific material of the play impeccably well, giving honest performances of these multi-layered characters. All actors were challenged with not only the graphic material, but with speaking in unison, moving as one unit, and delivering lines with varying cadences, going back and forth between normal speech and poetry. The most prominent use of the ensemble was during a scene without talking, when the actors paired off and began mirroring one other’s movements. During this, they began detecting the characters physical insecurities, and attempted to fix them by making numerous adjustments to their bodies.
Although the actors would occasionally step on one another’s lines, they compensated by maintaining the pace of the show and hitting the necessary emotional notes of their characters.
Kelik Dawson gave a stellar performance as Freak/Eric Harris, demonstrating Harris’ mental instability through dynamic physical and emotional reactions. Dawson’s stage presence and potent line delivering showed Eric’s unrelenting hatred, while his expert use of silence displayed Eric’s contemplative, tortured and sensitive nature
As Loner/Dylan Klebold, Jackson Miller engaged the audience through his subtly as Dylan would shrug off any negative interactions he had with bullies or his parents, giving the impression that he cared about nothing and no one. His aloof demeanor through the first half of the show allowed to his outbursts of anger in to second half to be ten-times as striking.
Other standout performers were Jordan Brown as Jock and Sophie Thurschwell as Faith. Brown brought depth to the stereotype of the high school jock by portraying the characters inherent sense of entitlement, due to his hard work. Thurschwell effectively depicted the inner conflict of an adolescent who questions their religion due to the hardships of teenage life.
Together, the cast and production team of columbinus presented a outstanding piece of theatre to highlight the issues of violence, mental illness among others that each day prove to be even more painstakingly relevant.
Running Time: Approximately 1 hour and 45 minutes, with no intermission.
columbinus played for one-night-only at The Theatre Lab School of the Dramatic Arts performing at Theater J – 1529 16th Street, NW, in Washington, DC. For future Theatre Lab events, go to their website. For the upcoming Theater J season, go to their website.