For a drama about one of the most infamous school shootings in US history, columbinus is remarkably unbloody. The play, which is being staged by ArtsEmerson for 10 performances starting Sept. 17, documents every grim detail of the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colo., in which teenagers Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris murdered 12 students and a teacher before committing suicide. But despite the subject matter, there isn’t one shot fired in columbinus. There are more explicit scenes of violence and death in a typical production of Macbeth than anything in this play.
P J Paparelli, who co-wrote columbinus with Stephen Karam, never wanted it any other way. “We didn’t want this to be about shock value,” he says. Even so, the play’s second act, which recounts the rampage, still manages to be shocking. It’s part staged reinterpretation, part documentary. Photos of the two killers are projected above the stage, and a recording of a 911 call from a woman trapped in the school library is played almost in its entirety. As for the murders, those details are conveyed mostly with words. “We let the victims’ testimony come forward,” Paparelli says. Dylan and Eric “are turned away from the audience in the shooting scene. We didn’t want it to be about them.”
It’s a powerful production, but is Boston ready for a theatrical retelling of a mass murder by a pair of young men just five months after the Boston Marathon bombings? For many, emotions are still raw about the violence that left four people dead and injured more than 260. In July, after bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone, the public’s reaction, especially in Boston, was outrage. Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino, in a letter to publisher Jann Wenner, said the cover reaffirmed “a terrible message that destruction gains fame for killers and their causes.”
Critics could argue that columbinus is doing exactly the same thing. The show doesn’t attempt to romanticize the killers, but it gives them another moment in the spotlight.
Eric Folks, the 26 year-old actor who plays “Loner” (i.e. Dylan Klebold), doesn’t think the real Dylan would have been especially happy with columbinus. “We see so much of the pain and ridicule and fear and embarrassment that put them down this path,” he says of the play. “I don’t think that’s something they wanted shared. There was a lot they were trying to hide.” Paparelli agrees that Columbinus humanizes the teens who brought so much carnage on their school. “It was important for us to see the other side,” he says. “And a lot of people don’t want to do that. For many of the survivors, they didn’t want to acknowledge Dylan and Eric as children. They were just the enemy.”
Paparelli is explaining this while sitting in a Starbucks in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood, a short distance from the American Theater Company, where columbinus (the title is Latin for “dove-like”) just finished a successful revival. He talks about the show — which he based on years of interviews with survivors, friends and family of the victims, and law enforcement, as well as diaries and videos left behind by the shooters — and the normally noisy coffee shop is like a library. All around him, people are sipping their lattes and pretending not to listen.
“We wanted to show their frustrations with each other, their doubts, their screams of looking for another way out,” Paparelli says of Dylan and Eric. “None of this sympathizes with them, but it paints a picture of what these adolescents could have — could have, could have — gone through.” A man with a white beard sitting in the next table puts down his newspaper and turns directly to Paparelli, listening like he’s in the audience of a one-man show.
Judy Brown is a parent of one of the Columbine survivors. (Eric Harris purportedly spared her son, telling him “I like you now. Get out of here. Go home.”) She was one of many who spoke with Paparelli for the play, and she agrees with Paparelli’s sentiments that the killers should be remembered as children. “Dylan came to my house many times,” she says. “He was a sensitive child and a good kid. But he changed into a killer.” Even today, referring to the killers by name inspires ire from her neighbors. “That’s how sensitive it is here,” she says. “They don’t want me to call him Dylan, because they think it makes him sound child-like. They want me to call him ‘Murderer’.” (Interestingly, Paparelli never refers to either Dylan or Eric as killers or murderers, only by their first names or “the boys.”)
Time hasn’t healed those wounds, but it has made many of the survivors more willing to reflect on the tragedy. The play premiered in 2005, but until the recent Chicago revival, most of the survivors, even those who had shared their stories with Paparelli, had never seen a live performance of the show.
“This time was different,” Paparelli says. “People who lost their children sat in the [Chicago] theater and watched a very difficult play. They told me, ‘I couldn’t have done this five, six years ago. But I needed to see it now.'” Many of them walked out during the second act, which recounts the massacre. “The second act is hard,” Paparelli says. “The boys come alive in front of you.”
Brown remembers coming to an early rehearsal for the Chicago production, and seeing Matt Bausone, the actor who plays Eric Harris, walking into the theater. “We didn’t know who he was,” she says. “But I turned to my husband (Randy) and said, ‘Holy shit, that’s Eric.’ The way he looked, the way he carried himself and held his backpack, it could have totally been him. Later on, we were watching them rehearse and another family came in, and one of them tapped me on the shoulder and said (whispering) ‘Did you see that guy? Did you see the guy who’s playing Eric? I’m freaking out.'”
Columbinus already has a controversial relationship with Boston. In 2011, a production was planned at Lexington High School, until principal Natalie Cohen cancelled the show after receiving complaints from parents. “I’m not a fan of censorship in any way, and I never thought I would be in this position,’’ Cohen told the Globe at the time. “But this play, on its face, is so alarming and so unredeeming; you leave the end of the play with: ‘What do I do? The world is just horrible and out of control.'” The show eventually found a home at the Huntington Theatre, which gave it a limited run.
The 2013 columbinus revival is not just more of the same. The play now includes a third act, which Paparelli added after returning to Littleton last summer (coincidentally, just a month before the movie theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado), to explore the aftermath and the “grieving process” among the survivors who are still trying to make peace with what happened. And that may be the larger message of columbinus.
“After the shootings, the community wanted to heal too quickly,” says Paparelli. “The shooting happened in April, and the kids were back in the same school in September. The desire for the community to move on prevented them from going through the cycles of grief that humans have to go through.” Paparelli sees parallels between Littleton and what Boston is just beginning to grapple with. “With the Boston bombings, you have a community that’s looking for immediate justice,” he says. “But it’s never that easy. I think it’s important to examine the long-term effects.”
ArtsEmerson’s presentation of columbinus was planned before the Marathon bombings. When he heard about the attack, Paparelli remembers thinking, “That might be it for us.” But David Dower, ArtsEmerson’s director of artistic programs, thinks the timing couldn’t be more appropriate. “It feels to me that the play will actually give some of us a distance and perspective on what we have been through,” he says. “Equating two such different, and remote, events is problematic in a general sense, but the play deals in such specifics that we will see both the similarities and the differences in sharp relief.”
Randy Brown, Judy’s husband and a man who nearly lost his son at Columbine, says the feelings of helplessness never completely go away. “You can walk up to people on the street even today and get then to cry about what happened,” he says. “For years, we’ve heard people say things like ‘it’s time to move on.’ But that doesn’t always happen. Some people in this town have never faced the sadness. We have a friend who’s a psychiatrist, and he says it’s the unspoken truths that haunt you. If you don’t deal with it and talk about it, it’s actually worse for you.”
Is Boston ready for columbinus? Whatever the reaction, Paparelli thinks it’ll be healthy. “The social consciousness of a community is connected to the way in which it receives this play. Because it begs the conversation,” he says. “I think it’ll be good for Boston. It won’t be easy, but it’ll be good.”
(This story originally appeared, in a slightly different form, in the September 14th, 2013 edition of the Boston Globe.)