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