New York has seen two national nightmares dramatized onstage this year. The first came in March, when the Wooster Group revived its harrowing production of Eugene O’Neill’s The Emperor Jones. By having Kate Valk play the title role in blackface, director Elizabeth LeCompte not only exposed the pathologies of American race relations—the power imbalance, the psychic toll—but the disastrous, even crazy way we depict them.
Now, courtesy of New York Theatre Workshop, comes the second assault on our complacency. Columbinus (an unfortunate name), by the United States Theatre Project (ditto), combines interviews, legal documents, journal entries, and dramatic imagination to explore the 1999 massacre at Columbine High School. Like The Emperor Jones, it offers no answers or even solace in the face of calamity; it seeks to disturb, and does so.
On a set resembling a basketball court, two characters, unnamed but much akin to Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, make their way through a typical American high school. So typical, in fact, that writer Stephen Karam and writer-director PJ Paparelli mainly rehash the old tropes of high-school melodrama: lunch-table segregation, an alpha blonde who’s both pregnant and bulimic, and so forth. Soon enough, the two killers come to the fore. Much of Act One shows the Harris and Klebold characters getting tormented by their classmates in all sorts of demeaning ways.
There’s something worrying about these scenes of victimization. The FBI concluded that it’s wrong to think of Columbine as merely the bloodiest school shooting in history. Harris and Klebold didn’t just snap one day in study hall; abuse from their classmates can’t fully account for their transformation into terrorists and mass murderers. To their credit, Karam and Paparelli eventually offer an explanation more sophisticated than mere getting-even-with-the-cool-kids, though without resolving the tension created by spending so much time watching the cool kids kick them around.
The pivot comes on a bold image: When Harris and Klebold first put on their trench coats and glower at the audience, they cease to play vague archetypes and become the actual killers—a sight that made my skin crawl. Alternately thinking deep thoughts and goofing around, Klebold seems juvenile, in every pejorative sense of the word. As played by Will Rogers, he’s a lanky ectomorph with hat turned back, an angry kid who might have been saved. But Harris?
Prowling the stage in dark boots and spiky blond hair, quaking with rage, Karl Miller’s Harris seems to be receiving electroshocks from a sputtering feed. This son of a military man is intelligent, charming, and heavily medicated, pouring out hatred for his inferiors, a group he thought included just about everyone. After watching Harris’s vile and meticulous brain at work—he planned the attack for nearly a year—you begin to grasp why the show’s creators spent so much time with the banal kids in Act One: They’re the swimmers you see splashing around before the fin appears. Miller is so good as the psychopathic Harris, if I saw him coming toward me on the street, I might turn the other way.
The violence, when it comes, is as upsetting as you’d fear. As in the Woosters’ feverish Emperor Jones, broad theatrical strokes with light and sound help; sitting in the theater, you practically feel the assault take place. Yet the questions posed in its quiet aftermath unnerve even more. Will the town of Littleton commemorate the massacre by planting thirteen trees or fifteen? What should a pastor say when the Klebolds ask him to commend their son to Heaven? And, looming over the rest: Where does evil come from, and why?
In the wake of this play, it has been suggested that theater can’t analyze these last questions with satisfaction. Never mind Iago, whose dirty dealing is more eloquent on the subject than a whole shelf of philosophies. In its limited, sometimes faltering way, Columbinus uses the apparatus of the stage to make you confront, directly and viscerally, an evil that really did exist, and to despair because, our cherished ideals notwithstanding, it surfaced not in the Reichstag or in a cave in Pakistan but in a middle-American high school.