Are any of us unscarred by high school? As a shy teenager who split my three high school years almost evenly between Grimsley in Greensboro and Broughton in Raleigh, and felt very much like an outsider at both places, I watched the Raleigh Ensemble Players’ Southeastern premiere of Columbinus, written by Stephen Karam and PJ Paparelli for the United States Theatre Project, with a shock of recognition that opened old wounds that I thought had healed decades ago. No doubt other audience members experienced similar flashbacks.
On one level, Columbinus dramatizes the April 20, 1999, shootings at Columbine High School in Colorado. But on another level the play chronicles the stresses of today’s high school students as more and more erupting school shootings make headlines from coast to coast.
The first act starts with an average school day in which the in-crowd lords it over the outcasts, but somewhere along the way typical teenage angst evolves into homicidal rage for two misfits named Eric Harris (Ryan Brock) and Dylan Klebold (Jesse Gephart), who wreak a bloody vengeance on the callous classmates who abused them and their fellow students who merely stood by and never tried to stop the daily humiliations that oddball kids like Harris and Klebold suffer. Act Two recreates the school shootings, their planning and their aftermath, in such chilling detail — with slaps on wood and metal substituting for gunshots — that it is increasingly hard to watch without tears.
When the show begins, there are eight actors playing high school stereotypes: Ryan Brock (Freak), Jesse Gephart (Loner), Whitney Griffin (Faith), Lormarev Jones (Rebel), Chris Milner (Prep), Eric Morales (Jock), Megan Navarette (Perfect), and Justin Schwartz (AP, which I assume stands for Advanced Placement). By the end of Act One, Brock and Gephart have morphed into Harris and Klebold, stockpiling pistols, shotguns, and automatic weapons and making crude bombs with the expressed purpose of eclipsing Texas-tower sniper Charles Whitman’s record for school shootings — and then killing themselves as the cops close in.
Not only has REP artistic director C. Glen Matthews assembled a crackerjack cast for Columbinus, but he has molded them into an eloquent and expressive ensemble with Brock brilliant as Harris, the military brat subject to volcanic rages, and Gephart terrific as Klebold, a goofy loner who becomes Harris’ sidekick and then his partner in this unspeakable crime.
Every other cast member creates several truly unforgettable characters — Columbine kids, parents, teachers, counselors, and law-enforcement types — all awash in the tsunami of vengeance that roared through Columbine High on April 20th. Some succumb, some survive, but all do it eloquently and with extraordinary depth of feeling.
While Brock and Gephart undergo truly frightening transformations from at-risk students to mass murderers who videotaped their suicide notes to taunt everyone who escape their rampage, the six stellar members of the supporting cast breathe life into dozens of other characters. Technical director and lighting designer Thomas Mauney, set designer and properties mistress Miyuki Su, costume designer LeGrande Smith, media designer Bridget Harron, media engineer Larry Evans, fight director Jason A. Armit, and sound designer Elisheba Ittoop combine with director Glen Matthews and his all-star cast to make Columbinus a must-see drama. It is hard to watch, but impossible to watch unscathed.
Raleigh Ensemble Players presents Columbinus Thursday-Saturday, Oct. 18-20 and 25-27, at 8 p.m. and Sunday, Oct. 21, at 7 p.m. at Artspace Gallery 2, 201 E. Davie St., Raleigh, North Carolina. $17 ($14 students with ID, seniors, and active-duty military personnel). 919/832-9607, TTY: 919/835-0624 or http://www.realtheatre.org/box_office.html. Note: There will be a Fully Accessible Performance on Oct. 18th, with audio description by Arts Access, Inc.. Raleigh Ensemble Players: http://www.realtheatre.org/plays.html. Columbinus: http://www.unitedstatestheatreproject.org/columbinus/index.html [inactive 8/09] (United States Theatre Project) and http://www.nytw.org/columbinus_info.asp (New York Theatre Workshop). Study Guide: http://www.unitedstatestheatreproject.org/documents/columbinusStudyGuide.doc [inactive 8/09]. A Columbine Site: http://www.acolumbinesite.com/. Tragedy at Columbine (The Daily Camera of Boulder, CO): http://www.boulderdailycamera.com/shooting/index.html [inactive 4/09]. Text of the Columbine Report (courtesy The Daily Camera): http://www.boulderdailycamera.com/shooting/report.html [inactive 4/09].