Why 'Columbinus' was Incredibly Moving
An Objective Perspective
In April of 1999, tragedy struck a small town in Colorado when two students, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, committed a mass murder at Columbine High School. This heinous crime started a twisted phenomenon of school shootings that has continued to this day. As a result, these calamities are often grouped together, but it is important to note that they are not identical. While each one is undeniably horrible, there were different circumstances and different people involved.
Columbinus, written by Stephen Karam and PJ Paparelli, examines the events that occurred before, during, and after the Columbine massacre. The playwrights could have easily painted Harris and Klebold as emotionless monsters, but the play, instead, humanizes them. What sets them apart from some others who have committed similar atrocities is that they were just kids; kids who were bullied and mentally abused well past their breaking points. This is not to say that Columbinus suggests that the shooters are the real victims. The other students are also made to be relatable, too. They all have their respective burdens and the audience is given an almost omniscient view of their lives in order to better understand them. The first half or so of the play attempts to eliminate bias and helps us empathize with each character, particularly the shooters. None of them are given names except Harris and Klebold, but even they are not explicitly stated until around the middle of the show.
Suffice to say, directing a show with this subject matter is a herculean task, so it was a chancy move for Lily Kamp to choose it as her studio lab this semester. However, I wholeheartedly believe the gamble paid off.
Going in, I was skeptical about the team making adequate use of the space, since some past shows have struggled with staging in Studio A. These worries were proved wrong, as the show was brilliantly designed. Words projected on a chalkboard that stated the location coupled with some chair and table rearrangements in each scene completely overcoming any disadvantage that the cast and crew may have initially encountered.
The characters represent stereotypes of high school students, set up perfectly with unique entrance music for each of them. The type of music playing correlates with the character and allows the audience to know essentially who they are before they even speak. My only qualm with this is that the music kept switching even after everyone was onstage, which became somewhat disorienting. If they wanted to keep redirecting our attention, the crew should have dimmed the lights around the other characters to make it clearer as to where we should look. They do intelligently change the lighting for imagined sequences, which allows the audience know when something was just happening in a character’s mind. More lighting changes like this could have gone a long way.
Interestingly, the precise casting of Lily Kamp’s Columbinus was kept a secret until the first performance. Much like how David Fincher kept Kevin Spacey’s involvement in the movie Se7en a secret from the public, Kamp told the Skidmore Theater Company that she did not want people to go in with biases about certain characters. However, the similarities between Spacey’s John Doe and the two shooters in this production are few and far between. Klebold and Harris are not presented as sociopaths, but, rather, as troubled high school students. At the beginning, they seem as average as the rest of the characters, so the audience is forced to guess who the Columbine Killers are. As the play goes on, the possibilities narrow down to only 3 characters, one of which turns out to be a red herring since he keeps repeating “see the shot and shoot,” but it turns out he is only referring to basketball. The two remaining characters begin to engage in criminal acts and are then revealed to be Klebold and Harris. By this point, though, viewers have gotten to know their characters enough to empathize with them, as bizarre as that sounds.
All of this scripting would be for naught if the show did not have talented actors to handle such an emotional story. Every cast member delivers a solid performance, though some who had multiple roles seemed like they were just playing the same one in a different costume. However, those secondary roles are negligible, so this was hardly an issue. While there were no real shortcomings in the cast, the production was anchored by the performances of Emmett Carnahan and Ethan Embry, who play Klebold and Harris, respectively. Embry perfectly portrays the inner rage of Harris, lashing out at a world that seemingly does not understand him. In contrast, Carnahan’s Klebold wants to fit in, but is rejected at every turn. They are driven to the point of no return by their classmates, who are oblivious to their own cruelty, naïve parents, and inept counsellors. The play culminates in a scene that mimics the actual massacre. Students are hiding under tables as real audio from that infamous day plays in the background. Harris and Klebold enter, dressed in black trench coats and armed with assault rifles. The two of them prowl about and then mime the murders as the rest of the cast recites actual accounts from the survivors. The only thing that could have made this chilling scene more eerie was if the sound of gunshots were used in place of Embry and Carnahan stomping their feet to signify shooting. This detail inhibited full immersion into the scene and, thus, prevented the play from reaching its full potential.
The biggest discrepancy is in the jock character. I am not denouncing Keegan Kelly’s performance, but the character himself was inconsistent in his behavior. In one scene, he was benevolent to the studious “nerd” character (the red herring I mentioned earlier), but then bullies Klebold and Harris. All three of them were beneath him on the social ladder, yet no reason was provided for why he treated two of them with such disdain and not the other.
After seeing Columbinus, many audience members were visibly shaken, myself included. The show challenges the notion that there is just one person or group to blame for such a tragedy. Moreover, it makes you question the kind of person you are because you realize that you just sympathized with people who committed a mass murder and the people who drove them to that point. To be clear, nobody is excusing the drastic measures in which Klebold and Harris resorted to. The suffering from that shooting has been immense, and no scenario justifies murder. The point is that this event, though horrific, is not as clearly understood as one may think. And if I can be led to believe this, as someone who’s hometown endured a school shooting, then this show was a rousing success.
Final Score: 9/10