Columbinus, directed by Mechelle Moe as part of Steppenwolf’s LookOut series, is a must-see production, insomuch as words on the internet cannot do it justice. I read this script a few years ago, and I can attest that the play is a triumph on the page; the late PJ Paparelli and Stephen Karam’s docudrama about the Columbine massacre unspools with such creative verve, such abstract wonder that it reads at once as a nightmarish poem and an objective account. But the Yard‘s work here is so good, so muscular and immediate that it demands to be not only seen but experienced. This is a limited run at Steppenwolf’s 1700 Theatre, which is a true shame: Moe and company could get great mileage touring this lean, immersive powerhouse.
The story here needs little context for modern audiences, but even so an opening montage of news clips spirals us back in time, highlighting the dozens of similar incidents over the past 20 years, crescendoing and then finally collapsing into the first reports that trickled in about a shooting in Colorado on April 20, 1999. From here an ensemble of 16 weaves a patchwork of high school life, dealing with issues mundane and existential, all barreling towards an inescapable conclusion.
But the fatalism on display does not detract from levity, as these performers are more often than not incredibly funny and truly moving, deftly balancing the humor of adolescence with its unforgiving ennui. And though the entire ensemble is fantastic, everyone producing at least one stand-out moment, I really must acknowledge Brian Baren and Ervin Tobar, the two young men portraying the shooters. They are charismatic and heartbreaking; the nihilism infecting these two doesn’t so much feel like a pathological symptom of the times but rather a tragic consequence of neglect and waywardness. There is a scene late in the play where the pair confronts their reasoning behind the massacre, arguing and consoling, confessing fears and anxieties and coming inches away from calling the whole thing off. It is chilling, and beautifully rendered, and among the best acting I’ve seen all year.
When Columbinus inevitably shifts into narrating the events of that April morning, it does so with such relentlessness and detail that I was left terrified, confused, and exhausted. Experiencing this in a room, where you can glance across the bleachers and witness others being moved to tears highlights the function of such a piece of theater. Kudos to set designer John Wilson for creating a playing space that unites actor and audience.
If the play had ended with the final gunshots, its trauma would have been felt long after the curtain call. But it is when the story continues that Columbinus is at its most revelatory. Past and present seem to exist at once in this final section, as students and parents begin to unravel what it means to live in a post-Columbine world, the reverberations of which we are still feeling today. It is then that we realize the massacre is not newly relevant, but rather it has never stopped being so.
In what I found to be a curious button, director Mechelle Moe leaves the audience with projections stating the importance of showing up to the polls this November, with links to advocacy groups to support and legislation to promote. This seemed oddly cynical and reductive, as if to say “you’ve seen the violence, now vote accordingly.” Besides, the shooters themselves predicted that the pundits would blame gun laws and video games and music, a notion they dismissed and scoffed at. It occurs to me that the brilliance of this play lies in its sidestepping of politics and transcendence of party lines. And in doing so Columbinus manages to pull off what might be its most radical act: empathizing with and passing judgment on all participants, victims and aggressors and peripheral actors alike, in equal, surefooted and calculated measure.
Columbinus continues at Steppenwolf’s 1700 Theatre, 1700 N Halsted, through May 26. Tickets are $25.