There was a long pause between the final, poignant conclusion to Sunday's performance of American Theater Company's world premiere of the revised "columbinus" and the well-deserved applause that followed.
During that time, we sat silent -- overwhelmed perhaps by PJ Paparelli and Stephen Karam's unflinching, unforgettable examination of the events of April 20, 1999, at Colorado's Columbine High School, when two teens, armed with homemade bombs, shotguns and semiautomatic weapons, murdered 12 fellow students and one teacher during what was, at the time, one of the nation's deadliest school shootings.
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"columbinus"★ ★ ★ ★
Location: American Theater Company, 1909 W. Byron St., Chicago. (773) 409-4125 or atcweb.org
Showtimes: 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday through March 10
Running time: About two hours, 40 minutes, with intermission
Tickets: $38, $43
Parking: Metered street parking available
Rating: For adults and mature teenagers; contains strong language, disturbing subject material, violence
When we began to stir, we moved quietly, as people do after a memorial service. For that is what director Paparelli's achingly authentic, expertly told "columbinus" is: part memorial, part cautionary tale and altogether exceptional theater.
First produced in 2005, "columbinus" -- which Paparelli conceived and characterizes as a "theatrical discussion" -- combines witness and survivor accounts with official reports, 911 transcripts, diaries, home video and artistic license in a docu-theater format similar to Tectonic Theatre's "The Laramie Project."
Raven Theatre's incendiary 2008 production marked the two-act play's Chicago-area premiere. This newly revised incarnation includes a third act consisting of new material Paparelli obtained after he returned last year to Littleton, Colo., to follow up with survivors and their families.
A riveting chronicle of teenage alienation, despair and ultimately rage, "columbinus" remains as powerful a theatrical event today as it did then. And of course, it resonates even more profoundly in the wake of subsequent tragedies at Minnesota's Red Lake Senior High School, Virginia Tech, Northern Illinois University and Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn.
The bleating of a digital alarm clock signals the start of the first act, a prologue of sorts, that begins with a morning ritual typical of high school students everywhere. We meet those students -- or rather we meet their stereotypes -- the smart kid, the nice girl, the jock. And we watch as they put on the accessories -- glasses, a crucifix, a baseball cap -- that define their roles within the high-school hierarchy. The exceptions are "the loner" Dylan Klebold (tall, tousled Eric Folks, a New York actor making an impressive Chicago debut) and "the freak" Eric Harris (wiry, coiled, combustible Matthew Bausone). Alternately taunted, bullied and ignored, they don't fit in anywhere, a reality Rob Fenton's menacing preppy makes clear, sneering "you'll remember high school as the sick feeling you get every day about noon trying to find a place to eat lunch, and I'll remember it as the best time of my life."
We watch Harris' humiliation in the locker room, the bullying that helped drive him over the edge; Klebold's abortive attempts to connect with an artsy outsider (Sadieh Rifai); perfunctory exchanges with guidance counselors who are unaware of the pain simmering below the surface, which the boys disclose in revealing interior monologues convincingly delivered by Folks and Bausone.
We observe the teens' parallel descent into murderous rage coalesce in the making of the "basement tapes" where Bausone's increasingly unhinged character proclaims: "this is hatred that fuels this fire ... you made me, you made us" as the two arm themselves for their assault.
Their performances, like those of the rest of Paparelli's cast, are sublimely rendered. That is especially evident in the harrowing second act where the massacre in the library unfolds in gut-wrenching fashion accompanied by the sound of fists pounding a blackboard, a sound that echoes like gunshots throughout the theater. Fenton, Rifai, Jerod Haynes, Kelly O'Sullivan, Leah Raidt and Tyler Ravelson deliver survivor accounts with pitch-perfect precision. Nothing about these performances is overly excessive. Their power rests with the urgency and sincerity with which this cast conveys an unimaginable horror. Kudos all around.
The third act unfolds as a kind of epilogue -- still being written -- beginning with the immediate aftermath expressed in chilling scenes of parents who recall the agonizing wait "for a bus that would never come" and fast forwarding five, 10, 13 years to the establishment of a memorial. It includes subtle indictments of parents, counselors and law enforcement officials (one family says they buried a report about one of the shooters they made before the killings) -- all of whom failed to notice a pair of ticking time bombs.
Ultimately, "columbinus" places blame where it belongs, with the shooters. Yet, it asks: what if? What if teenagers were more tolerant, school officials more sensitive and parents more prescient? But it offers no answers. It can't. As one survivor observes, there is no single solution.
Just more tragedies.