May 26, 2015

"A Free-Ranging, Even Frenetic Power"

A striking number of people involved in the May 2006 production of columbinus at New York Theatre Workshop went on to have careers I've followed, and/or I've gotten to know: actors Anna Camp, Bobby Steggert, Will Rogers, and Karl Miller, and cowriter Stephen Karam, for instance. Karam's cowriter and the piece's director, PJ Paparelli, is someone I've only "followed" from a distance, as a theater journalist interested in the national scene, because his work since then has been at Chicago's American Theater Company. (If memory serves, Paparelli himself cold-called me at my American Theatre desk to pitch a story about his "original Grease," in which he purportedly reclaimed it as a gritty Chicago tale, in 2011.) Most recently I published this piece about Paparelli's current ATC show, The Project(s)--and then, sadly, last night, I posted this memorial tribute by Karam, as Paparelli was killed in a car accident last week at age 40. My review of columbinus isn't available online, so I thought, as my own small gesture to his memory, that I'd repost it here. It ran May 22, 2006.

The rubber soles squeaking on the gym floor, the chalk dust, the pent-up, displaced hormones—with a few simple gestures, columbinus conjures a collective memory of high school that feels eerily, almost skin-crawlingly immediate. Even the restless, bubbling energy of the show's youthful eight-member cast suggests a pep rally, albeit one with a less exuberant subject than team spirit.

As if this shared time travel weren't hair-raising enough, this production by the United States Theatre Project, now at the New York Theatre Workshop, inexorably grows more specific. The show's Anyschool, USA becomes the site of the 20th century's last homegrown horror story, the Columbine High School massacre of April 20, 1999. Though the script by Stephen Karam and P.J. Paparelli unerringly, almost slavishly follows the multivoiced docu-theater outline of such antecedents as The Laramie Project or Twilight: Los Angeles, 1992, Paparelli's direction has a free-ranging, even frenetic power that feels authentically and painfully young. Even the show's less inspired moments—a random sampling of unrevealing postmortem commentary from residents of Littleton, Colorado, for instance—betray a touching, irresistible eagerness to get to the bottom of the mystery of why two seemingly average teenage boys would plot their own personal "judgment day." Crucially, columbinus also has the adult integrity to let this question hang in the smoky aftermath.

The show's creators seem to have calculated that the inevitable climax—a chilling recreation of the infamous school library bloodbath that is mostly narrated rather than explicitly staged—would be so harrowing and somber that the rest of the play, particularly the opening, should be pitched at perky peaks of adolescent fever. And so we get quick-cut, full-cast scenes that swarm through hallways, classrooms, cafeteria; we witness curt, tetchy dialogues with disembodied offstage voices of guidance counselors and teachers; we're privy to furious instant-messaging exchanges between Dylan (Will Rogers) and Eric (Karl Miller).

The show is also admirably unafraid of sweeping, iconic generalizations, dubious as they may be. One wordless early sequence, scored to the same aching rendition of "Mad World" that figured prominently in Donnie Darko, has the cast choosing, almost arbitrarily, talismans from suspended trays—a makeup case, dark-rimmed spectacles, a pack of cigarettes, a silver crucifix, a jock's cap that will define their roles in the high school hierarchy. The self-styled outcasts Dylan and Eric pointedly don't partake in this unnatural selection. The first-act break revisits this identity parade at a more advanced, less innocent stage, as the cast sings along with the chorus of "Bittersweet Symphony": "I'm a million different people from one day to the next." If only.

The characters that emerge in black trench coats as Dylan and Eric don't make for easy viewing—not only because they're a hair's breadth away from the excitable, angry teens we've known or once were, but because the actors positively savor their sociopathic excesses. Rogers, a likeable beanpole who bears an uncanny resemblance to the real-life Dylan Klebold, comes off as an easily impressionable sad sack spurred on by his partner's uncontainable rage. As Eric Harris, the short-fused military brat who was the massacre's main plotter, the haunting Miller has spiky blond hair and a ravaged look that's closer to heroin chic than cold-blooded jarhead fury. Amid the plotting and execution of the massacre, the show subtly strikes its most disturbing notes. These media-savvy teens obsessively documented their plans and their ever-growing arsenal, even speculating that one day "the world will be studying these videos" for clues, and, more, that directors will vie for the rights to film their story. It's a chastening moment for even the most scrupulous documentarians when their subjects turn and essentially thank them for the memories. Karam and Paparelli stare down this challenge without flinching, memorializing both the massacre's makers and its victims without blurring the lines between them.

For all its youthful questioning and empathy, this is the most grown-up thing about columbinus: It holds up a mirror to evil and reflects not only the pathologies we can all too readily recognize in ourselves and in our violence-fixated culture, but also the inexplicable terrors that haunt our darkest nightmares. That's a bigger and deeper inquiry than a mere high school social study.

By the United States Theatre Project
Written by Stephen Karam and P.J. Paparelli
Directed by P.J. Paparelli
New York Theatre Workshop

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