columbinus at American Theater Company | Theater review
In a revised and expanded version, this excavation of Columbine finds a new power.
Last month, a New York magazine cover declared: “High School Is a Sadistic Institution.” The fascinating article outlined recent research in neuroscience and social science that suggests high school “may be the worst possible place for the vulnerable 16-year-old mind.”
PJ Paparelli and Stephen Karam’s excavation of the 1999 school shooting at Colorado’s Columbine High School repeats that picture of high school on an extreme scale. The 2005 play, whose authors have gone on to become the sometimes embattled artistic director of American Theater Company and a 2012 Pulitzer Prize finalist, respectively, is presented at ATC in a newly revised and expanded edition. In the original script, a fanciful first act depicted generalized ’90s high-school life based on interviews with a broad spectrum of teenagers, and a fact-based second act portrayed the run-up to Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris’s massacre using court documents and the accounts of Columbine survivors; I saw that version in a 2008 Raven Theatre production.
This edition adds a third act, following up with survivors, parents and other residents of Littleton. The three acts, with their disparate approaches, are best viewed not as a single play but as a triptych. Act I’s facile filing away of teens as jocks, nerds, princesses and outcasts still embraces the same stereotypes as every popular work from The Breakfast Club to Mean Girls. (To be fair, more than one of the scientific studies cited in the New York story employ these same easy categorizations, which do seem to represent how teens see themselves and their peers.) And what’s now the second of three acts is marred by a segment, supertitled “What If?,” that imagines Harris’s and Klebold’s unknowable interactions as their “judgment day” approached.
That conjecture sits uneasily beside the new Act III, a remarkably affecting and insightfully arranged bit of verbatim theater that takes us through the attack’s long aftermath, up to the dedication of the Columbine memorial—and on through the mass shootings in Aurora, Newtown and elsewhere. Still, on the whole this production improves on the original columbinus, which felt well-meaning but unintentionally exploitative. With its additions, and in Paparelli’s strong staging featuring a heartfelt, achingly honest cast, the play finds a new power.