There’s a lot that’s shocking and disturbing in this show, as well there should be—it’s based on the April 20, 1999, shooting at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. That massacre—during which 15 died, including the two shooters—introduced random school shootings to our national nightmare, something once inconceivable. Now 20 years on, the horror is still sinking in, and the “Why?” has not gone away. The question only looms larger—because there have been more than 232 school shootings since.
columbinus—written by Stephen Karam and PJ Paparelli in the aftermath of Columbine—is an artful amalgam of interviews with teens, parents, and survivors. It was first read at Arena in 2003 and premiered at Round House in Silver Spring in 2005 and went on to win multiple awards during a successful run Off-Broadway. “columbinus is not a play,” said Coauthor Paparelli; “it is a theatrical discussion.”
In deciding to bring columbinus back to rekindle that discussion, 1st Stage Artistic Director Alex Levy has done something both nervy and necessary. Nervy because the topic is grim. And necessary because it’s high time we took another look at what columbinus has to say.
I ultimately decided to program the show because of what I believe theatre can do. The tragedy of school shootings strikes at our very worst nightmares, and it is so terrifying that it is almost too difficult to confront. But, in a theatre, with a community, we face it together. What is too painful to face alone, we can do together and be stronger, even uplifted, for having done it. We can struggle with big questions that are too terrifying to ponder by ourselves. That’s why I make theatre, and that’s why I chose to take on this show.
Co-directors Levy and Juan Francisco Villa have deliberately set this production in a very, very dark place. It’s a fictional high school that could be anywhere because the potential for a school shooting could be anywhere. But at 1st Stage the turbulent world of adolescence that columbinus immerses us in has been conceived by Set Designer Kathryn Kawecki as a black cage-like hellhole, with funhouse mirrors reflecting back every teen’s anxiety about fitting in. Lighting Designer Conor Mulligan splits the darkness with light so stark it eviscerates privacy. Sound Designer Kenny Neal plays angsty emo rock and tracks of strange distortion. And this unsettling setting becomes more and more relevant as we witness the ensemble of eight students enact all the everyday dynamics of dominance and disparagement that leave no one with a worthy sense of self and that drive some to retaliatory rage.
The entire cast, all 1st Stage first-timers dressed realistically by Costume Designer Kelsey Hunt, is captivating: Jennie Bissell, Brett Cassidy, Patrick Joy, Thais Menendez, Joe Mucciolo, Rocky Nunzio, Jonathan Del Palmer, Alex Reeves. Though they are not identified in the program by role, the script gives each a representative quality (such as athletic prowess, academic smarts, religious faith), which the actors make uniformly vivid. And Joy and Nunzio emerge memorably as the two bullied and disaffected loners who bond in self-defense over guns and pipe bombs.
The ordinariness of high school life unspools in two dozen raw and graphic scenes with innocuous titles such as Morning Ritual, Cafeteria, Physical Education, Creative Writing. It does not take long for the arsenal of wounding slurs and innuendos to be deployed: faggot and pussy for the boys, whore for the girls (as one sums up, high school was “four years of looks, smirks, and fuck-offs”). All of which is precursor to acts of physical brutality, and resentment that demands revenge.
Projection Designers Robbie Hayes and Patrick W. Lord do outstanding animated visual storytelling. Props such as a rosary or a pack of cigarettes first seen on screen come nimbly into play in the hands of the actors (the actual ones are by Props Designer Cindy Landrum Jacobs). And at several key points text scrolls on screen with chilling impact, as when Joy delivers an angry screed written by one of the kids who killed.
The last scene of the play, titled Aftermath, is powerfully moving: It consists of testimonies from survivors in the years following the shooting. Even though what we feel is sheer grief, it comes as a relief, an emotional respite from the unrelenting unease elicited by the harrowing scenes before. Much of that unease is about what this trenchant production illuminates perhaps more clearly than was possible 20 years ago: We live in changed times. School shootings have not stopped, but there is now greater awareness of how humiliating interpersonal dominance functions to enforce gender norms and punish deviation. 1st Stage now connects that conversation to gun violence.
“I have so much rage inside of me,” says one of the two depressed and alienated loners who determine to exact revenge. There may have been additional reasons they were triggered to commit lethal violence, but they were not alone in bearing the brunt of the derision and ridicule that columbinus presents as the common lot of youth. That is the inescapable truth this uncompromising work of theater asks us to see. The psychic violence that erupts in shootings is going on all the time.
Running Time: Two hours 45 minutes, including one intermission.