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Directed and Performed by Youths Aged 17-20, “Columbinus” Delivers a Powerful Anti-Bullying Message

The Necessary Dialogues Theatre Co. production of Columbinus, directed by 17-year-old Alex Tobey and performed at Burning Coal Theatre at the Murphey School, is a play — at least on the surface — about the tragic shooting that took place on April 20, 1999 at Columbine High School, leaving behind 13 victims (or 15 victims, if shooters Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold are included in the death total, and not many Coloradans are willing to do that). On a deeper level, however, this show is about all the things that teenagers so desperately need to say, but often don’t have the words to express, and about the way all teenagers’ thoughtless actions and careless words can wound their fellow students so deeply that they feel like outcasts at their own school.

Columbinus starts by depicting a typical day in the life of eight students. First, there are six familiar high school stereotypes: a hardworking young Jock (Jason Cooper); a kind, devout Christian girl named Faith (Meredith Davis); a Rebel (Caroline Jordan) struggling to accept herself; a seemingly Perfect beautiful and popular young woman (Victoria Oliver) with her own hidden pain; a Prep (Alec Shull) wrestling with his sexuality and the false identity he puts on at school; and an A.P. (for Advanced Placement) student (Jacob Stanton) trying to transcend his nerdiness. Then there are the two misfits that the other students ridicule and bully mercilessly: Loner a.k.a. Dylan Klebold (Alejandro La Rosa) and Freak a.k.a. Eric Harris (Logan T. Sutton), two sensitive young men who evolve into cold-blooded killers right in front of the audience.

At the beginning of the show, all of the young actors strip down to their underwear and lie, motionless, as alarm clocks sound and another school day begins. As they prepare for their day, the Ke$ha song “Tik Tok” is played, emphasizing the media influences on teenagers and the constant barrage of information and expectations that influence every waking moment of these high school students’ lives.

During a series of well-orchestrated introductions, all of the students stand in a line and are individually lit up by a spotlight. When the spotlight shines on a particular character, other students discuss their thoughts about that student. At the end of this segment, each character speaks about who he or she truly is or wishes to be. Quickly enamored with many of these characters, the audience then follows these students through an entire day, catching glimpses of their struggles and challenges during lunch time in the cafeteria, drama class, history class, creative writing class, and physical education.

Columbinus also provides a glimpse of Eric Harris at his after-school job at a pizza parlor, eavesdrops on an instant messaging session between Dylan and Eric, follows them as they commit a petty crime and get caught, and then shows them during counseling sessions as they complete their juvenile diversion programs. An overhead projection screen is used to cue the audience in as to where the students are at a particular time and also allows viewers to read the actual text of psychological reports on both of the gunmen and an eerie short story written by Dylan weeks before the massacre.

Though it would be easy for this overhead screen to divert attention from the onstage action, it actually adds to and complements the scenes. In fact, there are a lot of things in this play that shouldn’t work but do. For example, the actors playing students frequently step out of their core character in order to play teachers and guidance counselors off-stage or slip into the roles of parents or other adults onstage. However, everything flows so well under Tobey’s direction, and all the young actors pull off these switches of character so effortlessly, that the audience is rapt and not at all disconcerted by the many rapid role changes.

In an evening of stellar performances, it is difficult to determine which star shines the brightest; but Sutton’s angst-filled, nail-biting portrayal of Eric Harris and Jordan’s wild-eyed yet subtle performance as Rebel are among the most moving. La Rosa’s soft, vulnerable Dylan is powerful as well, causing audience members to sympathize with the murderers and to see them for the scared children they truly are.

All of the dialogue here is believable and real, and also extremely harsh and daring for such a young group of actors. Tobey fearlessly forges ahead with this performance, unafraid to show the audience the truth that most people hide from. When the shooting scene does actually arrive, it is handled subtly but chillingly. After waving their guns wildly to terrorize their fellow students trapped in the library, Dylan and Eric face a chalkboard, their backs to the audience, and slap it each time they fire.

Through several intense monologues, the characters divulge what happened on that fateful day of April 20, 1999. Afterwards, the audience learns a bit about the aftermath of the school shooting and the struggles faced by many of the parents of Columbine students.

This impressive youth-theater production of Columbinus, with actors, director, and stage crew ranging in age from 14 to 20, is as well put together and as powerful as many of the adult presentations performed in the Burning Coal Theatre at the Murphey School. Columbinus is easily one of the best shows of 2010 to date. But sadly it finished up its all-too-brief four-day run with a matinee performance on Aug. 15th. The lucky few who saw it will undoubtedly retain its images and messages in their hearts for many years to come.

VENUE: http://www.burningcoal.org/third/murphey.html. OTHER LINKS: The Play: http://www.nytw.org/columbinus_info.asp (New York Theatre Workshop). Columbine High School Shootings: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Columbine_High_School_massacre (Wikipedia), http://jefferson.lib.co.us/cltragedy2.html (Jefferson County Public Library shooting archives page), http://www.columbinememorial.org/ (Columbine Memorial), and http://acolumbinesite.com/index.html (4-20-1999: A Columbine Site).

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