How can we make sense of a massacre? For the American theater, the answer has always been to create a compelling narrative that explores the tragedy in a sensitive but demanding manner. But unlike classics such as “The Diary of Anne Frank” or “The Crucible,” the impulse for today’s playwrights has been to drop the drop the narrative, forget the fourth wall, and create documentary-style scene studies.
“Columbinus,” which opened this week at New York Theatre Workshop, examines the timing, terror, tears and teens that led to the shocking Columbine High School shootings on April 20, 1999 in which two male students murdered 12 students and one teacher. It has already inspired a number of films like Gus Van Sant’s “Elephant” and Michael Moore’s “Bowling for Columbine,” as well as numerous “I was there” testimonial books.
Described as a “theatrical discussion” based on extensive interviews, “Columbinus” features eight young actors who take on multiple roles in a manner similar to contemporary plays like “The Laramie Project” and “Twilight Los Angeles.” Rather than tell a straightforward story, the authors (the United States Theatre Project) aim to expose how the high school politics of social status unknowingly inspired deadly results.
Act One studies the collaborative identity of the student body, as seen in “Saved by the Bell” fashioned stereotypes like the hot blonde, jock, overachiever, and so on. The frustrations of the misunderstood loners – Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold – then grow to a dangerous boiling point. In a brilliant montage set to “Bitter Sweet Symphony” by The Verve, the boys finally don black trench coats while other characters are too consumed with their own problems to take notice.
Half of Act Two exposes Eric and Dylan’s fears while they await their “Judgment Day.” Then it gets gruesome... Thanks to the show’s sound design, the theater reverberates each time a gun shot is sounded. We are then left with some expository dialogue from “parents,” and then the actors rip off their disguises and thank us for listening.
“Columbinus,” was a last-minute replacement for New York Theatre Workshop after its controversial decision to “postpone” the one-woman drama “Rachel Corrie,” about the American girl who was killed by bulldozers as she protested for Palestine. It is certainly not perfect, but “Columbinus” gives off a youthful vitality that makes it a breathtaking and cathartic piece of ensemble theatre.
New York Theatre Workshop, 79 East 4th Street, 212-239-6200, $15-55. Tues 7pm, Wed-Fri 8pm, Sat 3 & 8pm, Sun 2 & 7pm. Through June 11.
According to Lincoln Center's new LCT3 project at its slogan, it takes "New Audiences for New Artists." It also takes new critics, hence the establishment of Theater Talk's New Theater Corps in 2005, a way for up-and-coming theater writers and eager new theatergoers to get exposure to the ever-growing theater scene in New York City. Writers for the New Theater Corps are given the opportunity to immerse themselves in the off-off and off-Broadway theater scene, learning and giving back high-quality reviews at the same time. Driven by a passion and love of the arts, the New Theater Corps aims to identify, support, and grow the arts community, one show and one person at a time.