This one comes straight from the gut — a wrenching return to the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School in which 12 students and a teacher were killed when two senior classmates went on a shooting rampage. The United States Theater Project’s smart and sensitive treatment of the event, which traumatized a suburban Colorado community and shocked the entire country, stirs up thought and feeling in this clean ensemble production, drawn from interviews, public records and the private diaries of the shooters and helmed with assurance by PJ Paparelli. A cross between “The Laramie Project” and “Frozen,” show is part doc, part play, making it both highly theatrical and deeply disturbing.
Youthful ensemble players sprawl across Tony Cisek’s utilitarian set of a featureless high school, assuming attitudes of intense self-absorption and revealing the paralyzing social anxieties of suburban kids anywhere. In their determination to stand out in a faceless crowd of classmates, they solemnly select clothes and attitudes (wittily visualized by costumer Miranda Hoffman) to assert their individuality — only to harness themselves into the very stereotypes they are trying to avoid.
By the time they get to the school cafeteria, everyone is sorted out into rigid categories — the jocks, the geeks, the brains, the golden girls, the rebels, the misfits — and woe to anyone who parks his tray at the wrong table. Although the types are well defined and earnestly enacted, nothing new is made of these familiars until the end of act one, when Dylan Klebold (Will Rogers) and Erik Harris (Karl Miller) step out from their prototypical roles as the Loner and the Freak and put a more menacing face on these seemingly harmless masks of adolescent alienation.
(To give the piece more of a cutting edge in future productions, the generic role-playing of the early scenes could easily be streamlined, cutting the intermish and bringing Klebold and Harris front and center much faster and to more dramatic effect.)
While the first act overdoes the buildup, act two has Miller and Rogers manfully shouldering their complicated characters and delivering the goods on their tormented inner lives. Here, scribes Karam and Paparelli drop the universal material of teen angst garnered from interviews in favor of words drawn from the private diaries, emails and videotapes that go a long way in exploring the twisted thinking behind the shootings.
Both Miller and Rogers grow in thespic stature as they work their way into the characters of the killers, explaining nothing yet revealing in great detail the progressive steps from teen angst to mindless rage. And on the night before the shooting, in a theatrical scene based on a homevideo, the young thesps come as close as they dare to the heart of the insanity.
While nothing can really “explain” the motivation for the massacre — to their credit, the creatives don’t attempt any facile explanations — the show does a chilling job of dramatizing both the event and the increasingly disoriented state of mind of the young killers.
In this, the production is especially well served by the wall of sound created by Martin Desjardins to suggest the demonic thoughts ricocheting in the boys’ brains as they bought guns, made bombs, dressed to kill and worked themselves into a homicidal frame of mind by obsessing on their grievances as social outcasts.
The massacre itself is shockingly well staged, with the lights focused on the faces of the terrified students while Klebold and Harris hammer out their hatred by pounding on the walls.
In the aftermath of the horror, parents, educators and members of the community are allowed to express their thoughts and feelings about the nightmare they knew would haunt them forever. But as no outsiders are brought into the framework to express the views of the audience, the play remains hermetically sealed.