Blank Slate Theatre’s production of the off-Broadway hit, “Columbinus,” created in 2005 by the United States Theatre Project, grabs you by the throat right from the start and doesn’t let go for an uncomfortable two hours. In the tradition of “The Laramie Project,” this two-act play blends fact and fiction to dramatize the events surrounding the April 20, 1999 shootings at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colo.; the massacre left 24 students injured and 15 more dead, counting the two responsible for the attack, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, whose rampage ended in suicide. The script, by Stephen Karam and PJ Paparelli, draws liberally from eye-witness accounts, testimony from students, parents and community leaders, police records, 911 recordings, and after-the-fact investigative journalism, as well as video and text journals left behind by Harris and Klebold.
“Spring Awakening,” staged in November, was billed as the company’s final public production, but “after the Newtown shootings,” says artistic director Adam Arnold, “we couldn’t just sit back. We needed to be part of this conversation.”
Lavish though it is with true-crime detail, Blank Slate Theatre’s “Columbinus” is concerned with more than mere re-enactment; the play also aims to universalize the dark undercurrents of contemporary American adolescent experience, to parse a narrative through-line that might make sense of the more pervasive, society-wide currents of alienation and suffering at play behind such eruptions of violence by and against children.
Everything about the show is rendered in starkly contrasting terms: the stage is cast in persistent shadow penetrated by bright strobe or spot lights. Characters are costumed in all-black iterations of the teenaged uniform – loose-fitting cargo pants for the girl who’s self-conscious, shorts and a tight cami for the one who’s not; a button-down and chinos; tees and hoodies – offset by a single, revealing mark of character in white (i.e. white-rimmed glasses for “AP,” a white hair ribbon and ball cap for “Perfect” and “Jock” respectively). The soundtrack – all driving beat and synth distortions, thick with rock-opera sensibility and electric menace – calls to mind the angry but not-quite-punk of the late ’80s.
There are surprising flashes of humor in the script, but little by way subtlety or irony to soften the angles of of this difficult story. The young actors deliver utterly committed, if raw-edged performances; indeed, the players’ unstinting emotional investment lends an authenticity and dimension to characterizations that would otherwise read as caricature. To my chagrin, I’ve a hard time connecting with the unabashed earnestness: the unrelenting melodrama of high school so rendered makes me squirmy. Maybe it’s the naked emotion on view, the interplay between the characters so fraught with cruelty, pain, anger and longing – right at the surface. I just feel like a voyeur; the role of spectator to such bald anguish and fear leaves me itchy in my skin. I suspect it’s supposed to.
But then I look around the audience, packed with teenagers who are riveted by the morality play unfolding in front of us, and it hits me – “Columbinus” is not intended, primarily, to speak to me. It’s for them. It’s performance as a means to epiphany and empowerment, intended to galvanize conversation and a sense of agency among the population of young people most immediately affected by such violence. And by that measure, the show is, without question, effectively communicating to its target audience.
“Columbinus” by Blank Slate Theatre, written by Stephen Karam and PJ Paparelli of the United States Theatre Project and directed by Adam Arnold, is on stage May 3 -13 in the basement of the First Baptist Church, 499 Wacouta St., St. Paul. For ticket details and additional information about the company, visit www.blankslatetheatre.com.