The 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo., are grist for “Columbinus,” written by the United States Theater Project and making its debut at the Round House. It’s a wordy but powerful portrait of the two persecuted teenagers who exacted revenge on their fellow students and the hostile atmosphere that fueled them.
P.J. Paparelli, a.d. at Perseverance Theater in Juneau, Alaska, and former associate director of D.C.’s Shakespeare Theater, created the U.S. Theater Project to present plays about major events that impact our culture. He selected as its first venture this search for answers to Columbine’s cosmic questions, describing the result as a “theatrical discussion” rather than a play. That said, theatricality is clearly emphasized in a production rich with raw emotion and special effects.
The script from Paparelli and two colleagues reflects extensive discussions with parents, survivors and community leaders in Littleton about the deadliest school shootings in U.S. history. Much of it comes verbatim from essays, journal entries, homevideos and computer instant messages by the real-life shooters, Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris.
The play is an intense picture of the effects of the seemingly petty cruelties and social pressures on display in virtually every high school setting on adolescent minds, especially those affected by depression or anxiety.
As with the homemade bombs created by the pair, all it takes is the proper string of commonplace ingredients — a confrontational atmosphere, inattentive educators, clueless parents — to produce incendiary consequences. As the play makes clear, the signs usually are there for us to see.
A capable cast of eight is headed by young actors Karl Miller and Will Rogers as the loners ostracized by the school’s jocks. An overwritten but poignant first act depicts a generic atmosphere of confrontation leading the two to retreat into shells of self-loathing.
In powerful and mature performances, the characters wrestle with their private demons while steadily ratcheting up the intensity. One eerie scene shows them gleefully exchanging instant messages about the wrath they plan to inflict, typing furiously as their words are projected on screens behind them.
Under Paparelli’s careful direction, “Columbinus” adroitly treads the line between excess and compassion for the real victims and their misguided killers. It’s strong stuff that left the opening-night audience silent.
Credit for its effectiveness also goes to Dan Covey’s moody lighting, JJ Kaczynski’s projections and Martin Desjardins’ raucous sound montage.