COLUMBINUS Raven Theatre
Went to school and I was very nervous
No one knew me, no one knew me
Hello teacher tell me what’s my lesson
Look right through me, look right through
And I find it kind of funny
I find it kind of sad
The dreams in which I’m dying
Are the best I’ve ever had —Gary Jules, “Mad
At one point in his excellent 2007 book Comprehending Columbine, researcher Ralph Larkin quotes several people who were students at the high school in suburban Denver on April 20, 1999, when it was terrorized by a pair of gunmen. “If you ask anyone, almost anyone, at Columbine, about the shooting, one thing you get a lot is, ‘They killed all the wrong people,'” says one girl. Adds another: “They’re supposedly attacking all the popular people, but the people they killed . . . weren’t in major cliques.”
It might have been easier to understand if mass murderers and self-styled martyrs Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold had focused on the “in crowd”—the jocks who bullied and taunted them and the popular girls who teased and rejected them. Instead, the two high school seniors embarked on an indiscriminate shooting spree, killing 12 classmates and one teacher at random before turning their guns on themselves. In fact, the boys intended to take as many as 500 lives. Their original plan was to blow up the cafeteria with two homemade bombs, then mow down students as they fled the building; the plot failed because the bombs’ detonators malfunctioned.
But as Raven Theatre’s moving, sometimes frightening, brilliantly acted Columbinus makes clear, there was in fact a cruel logic behind Harris and Klebold’s scheme. The real target of the Columbine massacre wasn’t the people who died; it was the people who were left behind, terrorized and infuriated and anguished and isolated and confused by their own brush with death and the deaths of their friends and loved ones. “I’ll take you down the only road I’ve ever been down,” sings Richard Ashcroft in the Verve’s “Bitter Sweet Symphony,” a song that figures heavily in the production—and that’s exactly what Harris and Klebold did, sharing their pain by causing pain to the survivors.
Based on interviews and official documents as well as the diaries, e-mail correspondence, Internet posts, and homemade videos left behind by the shooters, Columbinus was written by Stephen Karam and P.J. Paparelli of the United States Theatre Project, a nonprofit collective that premiered the work in 2005 and presented it off-Broadway the following year. I never saw that production, but it’s hard to imagine it could have been any better than the current Chicago premiere staged by Greg Kolack. Employing choral speaking, monologues, and music as well as traditional dialogue, and making effective use of multimedia design by Mike Tutaj, the play glances over the sociological factors that Comprehending Columbine so clearly lays out. It doesn’t analyze the “jock-ocracy” of high school, where star athletes set the standard of coolness that other students must aim for lest they be derided as “losers.” Instead, Columbinus locates Harris and Klebold’s pathology in identity crises familiar to every adolescent, current and former.
The play begins with the eight excellent young actors in their underwear, enacting the morning routine of high school students: sleeping through their alarms and their parents’ calls to rise and shine, dragging themselves out of bed and into the shower, throwing on clothes and backpacks, quickly checking their e-mail, and heading off to school, where they hope to chat with friends and maybe catch a quick smoke before the starting bell. The play follows these kids as they make their daily rounds: English class, history, gym, drama club, visits with guidance counselors. But the most important parts of the day are spent in the hallways, bathrooms, and locker rooms, where the students pass, compare, judge, question, and bully one another.
The kids are archetypes—but their insecurities about identity and body image are very real and recognizable. Dylan’s recalcitrance challenges classmates and teachers to see the sensitive person under the grungy exterior. Compact, clean-cut Eric bemoans his “pigeon-chested” build and hopes no one notices the bottle of antidepressants in his locker. A pretty girl subtly taunts her peers about their looks—then privately frets over her own weight. A studious nerd labors over his homework while secretly wondering what’s the point: “You’re a slave to money then you die,” goes the Verve song playing in his head. A girl from a conservative Christian home struggles with her own uncertain faith, wryly noting that the Bible gives no account of Jesus’s adolescent years: perhaps even he had it rough as a teen. A beefy jock takes ugly pleasure in taunting Dylan and Eric about their antisocial attitude, then confesses the source of his antipathy: the outsiders’ hip disaffection seems to mock him as he strives to improve himself, to become a better athlete and serve the school. The jock’s sidekick, meanwhile, nurtures a secret crush on his buddy—a terrifying feeling in a milieu where there’s no worse epithet than faggot.
Dylan and Eric aren’t gay, but their sexless relationship is as intense as the most passionate romance. They support and comfort each other in the face of harassment by other students and the cluelessness of well-meaning authority figures, such as the writing teacher who applauds Dylan for the detail in his eerie, prophetic story about a revenge killer—then corrects his grammar and chides him for using “inappropriate” profanity. The friends’ love focuses the anger they and many other adolescents feel into a hatred that finds expression in their infamous rampage.
It’s crucial that we believe in and care for these boys, whose feelings are so extreme and yet so accessible. Jamie Abelson and Matthew Klingler are riveting as Eric and Dylan, conveying the boys’ charm, intelligence, and vulnerability as well as the monstrous rage that grows within them. Abelson and Klingler’s fusion of visceral power and emotional precision ranks with the signal acting accomplishments in Chicago theater history—William Petersen in Wisdom Bridge’s In the Belly of the Beast, John Malkovich and Jeff Perry in Steppenwolf’s True West, Kevin Anderson and Terry Kinney in Steppenwolf’s Orphans. The superb supporting cast includes Michael Peters as the angry jock, David Rispoli as his sexually repressed admirer, Laura Schwartz as the confused Christian, Devon Candura as the pretty girl with the body-image hang-up, and Jenny Strubin as a dark-clad goth who teams up with shy Dylan for a painful reading of the balcony scene in Romeo and Juliet.
Kelly Dailey’s set is a spare, simple platform for the subtly textured performances: a bare stage dominated by an oversize blackboard with the word “Columbinus” scrawled in chalk. Images are projected onto the blackboard: the boys’ jittery text messages, copies of reports from their counseling sessions (“He makes me laugh,” says one case file about Dylan), Nazi military footage, photos of the real Eric and Dylan, and—in a somber moment at the end of the play—the names and images of the 13 people killed at Columbine.
This final touch makes Columbinus a touching memorial to the dead. But it is to the living that the play is addressed, as it is the living who must wrestle with the legacy that Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold left and the endless questions their actions continue to raise.
A Welcome Return
I started writing for the Reader in 1986 at the invitation of Tony Adler, who was assigning theater reviews at the time. Since then Tony has written extensively for this and other local and national publications. Next week he returns in the expanded role of arts editor, coordinating print and online coverage of the city’s performing and visual arts. Welcome back to the office, Tony. v