Theater Review: Columbinus by Stephen Karam and PJ Paparelli

Columbinus by Stephen Karam and PJ Paparelli. Directed by Ben Kaye. Dramaturgy by Patricia Hersch. Conceived by PJ Paparelli. Presented by the University of Pittsburgh Repertory Theatre. Studio Theatre, Cathedral of Learning, Univeristy of Pittsburgh Oakland Campus. November 28th through December 7th, Wednesday through Saturday at 8 p.m., Saturday and Sunday at 2 p.m., High School Matinee, Tuesday December 4th at 10 a.m. For tickets: 412-624-7529 or

As a play that roots itself in the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in Colorado, Columbinus looks beyond the facts exhaustively covered in the news to give us the—arguably truer—story of how adolescents can find themselves propelled into becoming the agents of such unfathomable violence. I’d like to tell you that you know how this story ends, except we all know that it hasn’t ended yet. The Columbine massacre was not without precedent, nor was it the most recent (or even most deadly) school shooting in the United States. Fifteen human lives were lost at Columbine, a total that was more than doubled in the shootings at Virginia Tech in 2007. We see this story repeated over and over, and every time it plays out we ask each other the same questions: How could someone do such a terrible thing? How could this have been prevented? Is there a lax gun law or some anti-depressant medication that might also be to blame? The same story, the same irreversible loss of human life, the same questions. No answers. The easy thing to do in the absence of answers is call the whole thing evil. The harder thing—the necessary thing—is to stare into the ultimately human face of that evil and try to understand it. Karam and Paparelli’s Columbinus attempts to do precisely that.

The University of Pittsburgh Repertory Theatre’s presentation of Columbinus exceeds the limitations of the text and delivers a number of robust and haunting performances. The play clocks in at a little over two hours, with a single intermission providing the division between the fictionalized first act and the grittier, more true-to-life second. The cast of nine opens the performance with a note that the characters were developed out of interviews and conversations with high schoolers from across the country. The characters that make it to the stage feel more like prototypes for a Breakfast Club rip-off: there is the jock, the prep, the popular girl, the bookworm, the rebel girl, the religious good girl, the loner, and the misfit. The first act passes without any of the characters actually having a name. Instead, each has a token object to secure their designation in the stratigraphy of high school social standings: for the jock, a Columbine-history-appropriate white ball cap; for the rebel girl, a pack a cigarettes; for the bookworm, glasses; and so on. The loner and the misfit are the only ones to receive any significant character development in the first act and are not solidified as Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold of Columbine infamy until the second act.

The first act comes across as an attempt to establish that adolescents of all cliques and quirks feel alone, unheard, and unappreciated, suffering in their own rights. The raw vibrancy of the actors’ portrayals and the inventiveness of the staging and set lighting make up for the shortcomings of the writing. With most of the cast being only a few years out of high school themselves, the texture of adolescent frustrations carries well through their performances. Each has their own moment to highlight their particular brand of personal struggle or dysfunction (be it anger at feeling disrespected by school authority figures, a hidden nascent homosexuality, or unplanned pregnancy) that is set outside of the narrative by precise and visually gripping changes in the set lighting. Through visual cues we are taken out of time in the first act’s narrative and pulled directly into the inner thoughts and fears of the characters through a cavalcade of soliloquies. The naked honesty revealed through those surreal shifts in and out of the characters’ own private thoughts is simply exhilarating. It is clear from the players’ intricate and measured movements through those frozen-in-time scenes that director Ben Kaye knows how to take advantage of moments of interiority.

Where Columbinus becomes disturbing is the second act. The listless narrative of the first act is dropped in favor of a close look at Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold in the run-up to their rampage. The second act opens with actual photos of Harris and Klebold projected above the stage as the actors who are taking up their mantle stand in opposite corners, nearly naked, glancing at the projected faces as they dress themselves in black combat boots and trench coats. Between them, a table of homemade explosives, guns, and ammunition. Most of the rest of Columbinus was written out of Harris and Klebold’s own journals and videotapes that they left behind, detailing their plans, their motivations, their anger and hate. It goes so far as to incorporate a lengthy recording of an actual 911 call placed by a teacher named Peggy who was in the library where most of the killing occurred. From there, Columbinus stages a dark and abstract recounting of Harris and Klebold’s killing spree in the school’s library. This is when the play becomes supremely troubling. With no new insights into those moments, no real advancement of our collective understanding of the nature of such violence, the entire library scene—precisely and fiery as it was performed—feels more like an exercise in voyeurism than a revelation into the human side of such evil. However, the legacy of the violence at Columbine is the necessary gravity that Columbinus needs to bring the questions we never seem to answer back into public discussion so that we can ask them before another tragedy rather than after.

The male leads, Rocky Paterra (as Eric Harris) and Mark Tumblin (as Dylan Klebold), play off of each other with an effortless intensity that elevates the tragic trajectory of their story into a theatrical experience that dissolves the artifice of the stage and the long years since Columbine first made the news. Adolescent suffering is more nuanced and mercurial than how we often see it portrayed in popular media. Paterra’s Harris is genuinely captivating as he develops a terrifying sense of purpose after stopping his anti-depressant regimen, and Tumblin’s Klebold gives some of the strongest deliveries of the show as he slips further and further under the spell of Eric Harris’ hypnotic sense of outrage.

Not to be missed are the performances by the three women of the cast, Lucy Clabby, Chelsea Faber, and Jacqueline Saporito as they both draw out some of the more painfully awkward and angsty characteristics of the soon-to-be-gunmen as well as deliver solid performances of their own in the first act. They and the rest of the cast (Billy Bourgoiun, Bryant Edwards, and Max Pavel) come together in the second act for an unavoidably heartbreaking retelling of the destructive rampage that ended with 15 human lives lost on that auspicious day more than 13 years ago. As an ensemble, this cast brings an earnestness and an honesty to the stage that a chilling story like columbinus demands. In the capable hands of director Ben Kaye and the Pitt Rep cast, Columbinus gets the sincere and affecting delivery its message deserves.

Filed under: Prose, Reviews: Performing Arts