ArtsEmerson, in collaboration with the American Theater Company, presented another small-scale, but high-impact production in the Paramount's humble Black Box Theater. This merciless retelling of the Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colorado brought audience members through the development, execution, and aftermath of this tragic affair.
During Act I, the audience is immersed in the cut-throat world of the troubled teen, where it's every man for himself. Adults, whether parents, teachers, or law authorities, were only heard and never seen; despite their presence, their physical absence enforced a feeling of social isolation: being alone in a crowded room and listening without hearing. As we were enveloped in the students' frustration and vulnerability, we catch ourselves sympathizing with the individual struggles of each character, even the killers.
As we are plunged deeper and deeper into the compassionless torrents of Eric Harris' cascading hatred, those feelings of pity quickly recede. Harris, played by Matthew Bausone, fulfilled, to an extent, the ostracized genius prototype of serial killers, the kid too smart (and too angry) for his own good. It was Eric Folks' casual, almost comic sensibility in the role of Dylan Klebold that really planted the seeds of disquiet in the minds of audience members. His way of trivializing violence and his quirkiness of character moved us to laugh on multiple occasions. Astonishingly, PJ Paparelli's compelling production is one that made extremely effective use of comedy; it's as if by coaxing a guilty chuckle from the audience, we will understand, even if only in the tiniest capacity, the convoluted feelings and guilt of the aftermath.
The production truly touched on a vast array of storytelling techniques: inner monologues, interviews, freeze frames,and song, among others, but what carried these techniques was the use of sound. The shooting took place in a largely abstract space. The two boys took the stage in trench coats and armed, which set the ball rolling on the visual front. From there on out, the graphic auditory experience took hold; the recorded April 20th call, the cast's gripping reenactments of witness testimony, both frantic and hauntingly serene, and the corresponding shotgun blasts captured the terror of the massacre with disturbing clarity.
The last act was much drier, but nonetheless indispensable. We were suddenly jolted back into reality: what happened at Columbine High was not a theater drama, but a tragedy, for which the fallout , after almost 15 years, has yet to settle. This kind of upheaval and rebuilding is something that many can relate to, but "Columbinus" leaves us with the numbing realization that, despite the community's best efforts, "tragedy can never sustain unity."
There was no clapping between acts and no curtain call. "Columbinus" is less of a drama, and more of a biographical scrapbook that brings together the scattered pieces and raises the unanswerable questions of this tragedy.