columbinus: heartbreak worth reliving

by Jason Madanjian / Beacon Staff • September 18, 2013

Columbinus 3
Matthew Bausone (left) and Eric Folks (right) as the two students who committed the Columbine High School massacre.
Courtesy of ArtsEmerson
Matthew Bausone (left) and Eric Folks (right) as the two students who committed the Columbine High School massacre.
Courtesy of ArtsEmerson

To say seeing columbinus is to live a nightmare is not a criticism of the show, but rather a testament to its ruthless brilliance. 

The 140-minute play unfolds in three acts: before the Columbine shooting, the shooting itself, and the aftermath. Each act is more mesmerizing and heartbreaking than the one before. There is a raw power theater possesses that is unique to its medium: intimacy and immediacy. columbinus is a master-class example for why that is. 

The Columbine High School massacre occurred on April 20, 1999, carried out by seniors Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. They killed 12 students and one teacher, as well as themselves. The event sparked debates about gun control laws in our country. And although the massacre occurred 14 years ago, its horror still pervades society, making the play as potent today as it would have been in the immediate aftermath of that shooting. 

Not too long ago, shootings occurred in both Aurora, Col. and Newtown, Conn., devastating the communities and sparking further debate about gun violence in our country. And just one day before its ArtsEmerson opening on Sept. 17, 12 people were killed at the Washington Navy Yard. 

The characters in the first act, including the two gunmen, are each boiled down to  typical high school stereotypes: the jock, the nerd, the loner, the sexually active girl, and so on. But quickly, these characters prove they are more than just a defining trait. And this is where columbinus succeeds: it’s both a breakdown of and an insight into high school and the dynamics that exist within it. This makes the play a perfect Breakfast Club for a post-Columbine, and even post-9/11, generation of teenagers. 

The prep is a closeted homosexual. The loner is a great creative writer. The religious girl wants to break out of her awkward phase. The play isn’t making a statement on how easy it is for kids to get their hands on guns, but rather on the culture they grow up in that might make them want to actually go through with murdering their classmates. It’s scary stuff, and this play isn’t afraid to ask the tough questions about the world we live in.

Take, for example, the seemingly obvious villains of the piece: Harris and Klebold, played brilliantly by Matthew Bausone and Eric Folks, respectively. Yes, these characters are sadistic pricks. But how did they get this way? They are bullied and called “faggots” for how they dress and what kind of music they listen to. They have talent, but no one cares. One is on anti-depressant meds, the other is awkward around girls. And both are plagued by incompetent guidance counselors and pushover parents. All this is not to say that we as a society should have seen this coming. Rather, the play makes you think: Even if we didn’t commit these murders, we all played a part in it somehow. 

columbinus is both ambitious in the amount of material and time it covers, and simplistic in its stripped down nature. There weren’t a lot of fancy, innovative theater techniques. However, a projector does effectively make use of real photos and footage from that day, and also displaying transcripts of a now infamous 911 phone call made by a teacher, Patti Nielson, during the attack. 

But for the most part, credit must be given to director PJ Paparelli and his amazing cast of actors. Paparelli is also the conceiver and co-writer of the play, going all the way back to its 2005 premiere in Maryland. And the actors, who, although clearly past the age of high school, so effectively convey the angst of those years to an audience mostly comprised of people who aren’t too much older than these characters. It takes a certain kind of endurance to relive Columbine every night, but the actors give a spontaneous approach to the entire show.

The performance ends with the actors writing the names of the victims on a chalkboard. The cast didn’t take a curtain call, but that didn’t stop the audience from clapping as the lights went back on. 

The decision not to have a curtain call in the first place feels appropriate. This isn’t a vanity project for these actors. This is a harrowing, raw play about a massacre that should have never happened. And thankfully, with beautiful art like this, it will never be forgotten.