Friday, October 18, 2013

Reconsidering Columbine

Matthew Bausone and Eric Folks in columbinus.

Verbatim theatre, the hot stage trend of the millennium, seems to have slowly fallen apart at the seams. Anna Deavere Smith's Fires in the Mirror, which kickstarted the whole genre, has been criticized in the years since its premiere for an implicit sympathy with anti-Semitism. And The Laramie Project, probably the trend's greatest political success, was recently debunked yet again, and looks more and more like a manipulative, if well-intentioned, deception.

Now we have (or had) columbinus, which recently played at ArtsEmerson in a production from the United States Theatre Project (my apologies for the lateness of this review!) which tries to bridge the gap between verbatim techniques and something like traditional playwriting. But said bridge (an attempt by Stephen Karam and P.J. Paparelli to limn the massacre at Columbine High School through a series of skits) slowly collapses, and the remaining half-baked dramatic soufflĂ© pretty much falls flat - although to be fair, the script's second act, which relies almost entirely on documentary evidence from that fateful day, is sometimes riveting.

Indeed, when the playwrights simply give us the raw audio from a taped call to 911 from a terrified teacher in the high school's cafeteria, for a brief moment the overwhelming horror of the event comes at us with the force of a gunshot (thanks in part to an almost assaultive sound design by Martin Desjardins and Andre Pluess). But whenever Karam and McNall raise their own conventional, slightly arch voices, columbinus starts to lose aesthetic loft; and the long opening act, which attempts to conjure some sort of archetypal high school experience (with generic characters tagged "Jock," "Loner," and "Rebel") flirts too often - despite the energy of a talented cast - with the very banality it pretends to be exploring.

For we already knew the Columbine massacre erupted from the quotidian and familiar - yet the playwrights seem to think this counts as a revelation. (If only!)  Instead, we're far more curious about the specifics of how everything went wrong in this particular time and place. Thus while Karam and Paparelli manage to differentiate the two villains of the piece - Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold - they never zero in on the real dramatic spine of their story: how the poisoned (and poisonous) Harris slowly drew the suggestible, damaged Klebold into a revenge fantasy on their lonely island stocked with guns and an Internet connection. This is what we want to see - and what an actual play could give us - rather than yet another Stephen Karam after-school special.

The actual Harris and Klebold search for more victims.

Still, the jolts of the second act, and the compelling performances of actors Matthew Bausone (Harris) and Eric Folks (Klebold), have clearly been enough to convince many reviewers of the importance of this play. But to my mind, columbinus is most interesting as an object lesson in the simultaneous power and superficiality of verbatim theatre - how in some ways it trumps scripted drama viscerally, but nevertheless falls short of the fuller, deeper vision we expect of imagined fiction. Don't get me wrong; verbatim vignettes can certainly be artfully arranged into a simulacrum of actual theatre - this was Anna Deavere Smith's trick; but the success of the technique depends on the belief that political and racial divisions mean there is no overarching moral truth to be drawn from a given dramatic situation - and that's just not the case with Columbine.

And alas, the playwrights fail again in their third and final act, in which they turn Smith's techniques to the response of the Columbine community to the tragedy. Although again, to be fair, some dramatic treatment of this aftermath is long overdue; but here we sense behind the text (sometimes in spite of it) that there is a deep statement to be made about parental distance as the prime mover of the horror, but which Karam and Paparelli either can't see or won't admit.  One quoted parent even muses that when he heard about the attack on the high school, he simply wasn't concerned about his own son, because, really, what were the odds that he'd be shot? Later we learn that a memorial was only built through the efforts of a local fast food franchise. Really? Yet somehow no real vision coalesces around these sad ironies. And until that happens, it's hard to believe history won't repeat itself.

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