Fear & loathing at Columbine

Oregon Children's Theatre's 'Columbinus' tackles the mystery and tragedy of a famous school shooting in an era of amped-up school violence

A few things to consider before you head over to Oregon Children’s Theatre to see OCT’s Young Professionals Company perform Columbinus, a play about the infamous massacre in a Colorado high school:

  • There were mass murders in American schools before April 20, 1999, when students Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris began shooting up Columbine High School, killing 15 people (including themselves) and wounding 21 others. Less than a year earlier, for instance, on May 21, 1998, Kip Kinkel of Springfield, Oregon, shot and killed his parents and then went to Thurston High School, where he killed two more people and wounded 23.
  • This peculiarly American phenomenon stretches all the way back to July 26, 1764, when, in what has become known as the Pontiac’s Rebellion school massacre, three men entered a schoolhouse near present-day Greencastle, Pennsylvania, then shot and killed the schoolmaster and as many as 10 children. One child survived.
  • Yet Columbine was a turning point. In one sense it was business as usual: the 215th American school shooting in the violence-drenched 20th century. But things were getting bigger, and splashier, and – appallingly – still shocking, but less surprising.
  • The post-Columbine list includes formerly unthinkable atrocities such as the Virginia Tech massacre (33 killed, 25 wounded; April 16, 2007) and Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut (December 14, 2012; 28 killed, two wounded).
  • It also includes several shootings close to home just in the past year: one killed and three injured on June 5, 2014 at Seattle Pacific University; two killed and one wounded on June 10, 2014 at Reynolds High School in the Portland suburb of Troutdale; five killed and one wounded on October 24, 2014 in Marysville, Washington; three wounded and no one killed in a shooting outside Rosemary Anderson High School in Portland on December 12, 2014.
  • Call up “List of school shootings in the United States” on Wikipedia and start counting. Forty-five shootings through the 10 decades of the 1800s, 218 from 1900 through 1999, another 147 so far in the fifteen-plus years beginning in 2000. I might be off a shooting or two: my fingers started getting bleary as they traced down, down, down the screen.
  • Until roughly the 1980s the shootings were rare and mostly of the old-fashioned, “explainable” variety: shooting a teacher who gave you a bad grade, or killing the girl who dumped you, or shooting another student over a grudge, or barging in to shoot your ex-wife who’s a teacher. Personal killings, in other words: something you could explain, if not fathom. A few were just accidents.
  • The most recent school shooting, barely noted outside its immediate area, came on April 13 – that’s Monday of this week – when a former student is alleged to have entered the library at Wayne Community College in Goldsboro, North Carolina, shooting and killing his former boss in a work-study program.


Police tape and lasting trauma: "Columbinus" at OCT. Photo: Pat Moran

Police tape and lasting trauma: “Columbinus” at OCT. Photo: Pat Moran

I would apologize for this lengthy preamble to a story about a play being performed by teenagers, except that it seems necessary. The number and ferocity of school shootings since Columbine has accelerated swiftly, as has the seeming randomness of many attacks, until we’ve become numbed into accepting that this is the new normal. Few people think their own school is going to become a killing ground, but the possibility lurks, like a sinkhole just off the path. And in a gun culture that gives no sign of submitting to even minimal checks or precautions, it seems unlikely that anything’s about to change soon.

Columbinus, written by Stephen Karam and PJ Paparelli for the United States Theatre Project in 2005, can’t even pretend to offer solutions. What it can do, and does, is to explore the high school culture in which the violent fantasies of outcast students Harris and Klebold found fertile ground. Written in something like the documentary style of The Laramie Project, the landmark play about the 1998 murder in Wyoming of gay college student Mathew Wayne Shepard, Columbinus creates a kind of everyschool environment while concentrating on the specific situations of Klebold, Harris, and Columbine. The text is a blend of excerpts from court documents, the killers’ journals and videotaped records of their thoughts and preparations, and imagined conversations.

Tackling this show is a bold move by the young actors in OCT’s Young Professionals Company, who chose it out of several other possibilities (and, as Amy Wang reports in her preview for The Oregonian, did their first read-through on the day of the Reynolds High School shootings). Oregon Children’s Theatre often stretches the routine definition of what “children’s theater” means, happily feeding the imaginations of grade-school audiences but also expanding into tougher, more controversial territory in much the way the young-adult book market has.

Playing for a limited run in the studio space at OCT’s home on Northeast Sandy Boulevard and 20th Avenue rather than downtown at the Performing Arts Center, where its broader-based shows are performed, the company can take some unusual risks. The violence is one thing. The script is also peppered with language E.B. White and Beverly Cleary never would have dreamed of putting in a book for kids, although for teenage audiences it’s pretty much what they hear in the halls and lunchroom every day. The play’s casual raunchiness will keep it from being produced at almost all high schools – what principal wants to put up with the inevitable parental and pulpit squawking it would spark? – even though high schools are where its natural audience lies. That makes it all the more important that companies like OCT take on the play and its challenges.

The eight-member cast, drawn from across the metro area, does terrific, fiercely committed work, and the fine director Lava Alapai keeps the action tense and clear and focused. Thom Hilton and Blake Peebles star as Harris and Klebold, respectively, and an ensemble of Carter Bryan, Nate Golden, Charlotte Karlsen, Amber Kiara, Isaiah Rosales, and Emma Younger step in and out of a variety of roles: jock, miss popularity, nerdy honors student, goth kid, preppie, religious girl. A lot of casual bantering and battering goes on, with a fair amount of everyday bullying, taunting, and an occasional feeble challenge to the social pecking order. Researchers say that bullying, sometimes to the point of torment, is a big factor in as much as two-thirds of school shootings, and many see it as a major cause at Columbine, although Dave Cullen, author of the 2009 book Columbine, argues that Harris was more often the bully than the bullied. As heavy as the play’s material is, it’s punctuated by a few jokes, and the actors do a good job of revealing the rawness and innocence of high school culture as well as the meanness.

Life, changed irrevocably. Photo: Pat Moran

Life, changed irrevocably. Photo: Pat Moran

Harris was apparently the leader of the plot, a high-IQ kid who, the FBI later concluded, was a clinical psychopath with a “messianic-level superiority complex.” On and off of anti-depressants, he had an intense, hair-trigger personality, which Hilton projects vividly. Klebold, the follower, was depressive, and at one point apparently made a half-hearted attempt to stop Harris by revealing Harris’s secret Web page that contained raw threats of violence. Police looked, but didn’t follow up. Peebles, who starred as the sweet zombie hero in last season’s hit OCT musical Zombies in Love, brings some of the same sense of addled possibility to Klebold, making you think the slightest jolt might’ve turned him in another direction. Columbinus leaves you with the sense that Harris, who fantasized about rivaling the spectacular violence of Timothy McVeigh’s 1995 Oklahoma City terrorist bombing, was going down this route come hell or high water, but that Klebold’s case was more tentative and tragic: he might have been saved.

In the end, Columbine remains a giant question mark. For actors and audience, the play’s about staring into the mystifying face of evil. Columbinus suggests the school culture itself bears some of the responsibility, and that might be true. On the other hand, sometimes trying to find cause and effect doesn’t take into account ideas and personalities that are simply outside the bounds of rationality: a lot of kids are bullied, and very few of them become mass murderers. One of the things that makes The Laramie Project such a gripping work of theater is its concentration on the aftermath: what happened to the town and its people after the killing; how did it change their attitudes and lives? The version of Columbinus that OCT is producing concentrates more narrowly on the leadup and the massacre itself. A later, longer version does include some reflections after the fact, and it might have been good to see that. The play’s biggest weakness, I think, is its almost complete ducking of the issue of gun control. Harris and Klebold might well have got their weapons no matter what: they bought them illegally through friends, and even the strictest controls on sales won’t stop illegal trafficking. The issue is far too complex for an hour-and-a-half play to solve, let alone a bitterly divided U.S. Congress. But in a time when the extraordinary rise in school shootings parallels an equally extraordinary expansion of American gun culture and the transformation of the National Rifle Association from an organization advocating safe hunting practices to a shill for the unfettered arming of the nation, a play about school shootings should at least bring the issue up and try to figure out how it fits. How do we ease down to something approaching mere sanity? With great difficulty and many small steps, I’ll suggest: Pandora’s opened the box, and you can’t just stuff things back inside and shut the lid again. To hope for a single sweeping solution is to engage in a parallel sort of fantasy bravado to the take ’em out mentality of the mass murderers. But surely some sort of rational limits on the sale of arms is one of the necessary steps that eventually must be taken: it’s not the solution, but it’s a solution. Considering the sort of questions that Columbinus does is another.

What Columbinus does do, it does very well: if it doesn’t answer any questions, it raises a lot of pertinent ones. Take an afternoon or evening away from the swaggering bang-bang-bang of television police procedurals and remind yourself of what guns and bombs can really do. OCT suggests attendance for people 15 and older, or 13 if accompanied by a parent.


Performances continue at 7 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, April 16-18, and at 1 & 5 p.m. Sunday, April 19, at Oregon Children’s Theatre, 1939 N.E. Sandy Blvd. Ticket information is here.


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