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Round House's 'Columbinus' Limns The Darkest Corners of Adolescence

By Peter Marks
Washington Post Staff Writer
Wednesday, March 9, 2005

At the unsettling heart of "columbinus," Round House Theatre's ambitious examination of the 1999 bloodbath at Columbine High School, are two harrowing performances. Karl Miller and Will Rogers portray Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the deluded boys who systematically massacred 12 of their classmates and a teacher. And they are simply riveting.

Let us leave aside for a moment the thorny question of taste, whether there is anything indecent in a meticulous regurgitation of the repulsive thoughts and acts of the two young men who died with their victims on that awful day in Colorado. What Miller and Rogers do in this startling, emotionally charged world premiere on Round House's second stage in Silver Spring is put a cherubic face on horror. It's not the banality of evil they embody; it's the suburbanization of it.

The idea of negative synergy, the notion that this vengeful, tortured pair -- medicated, bullied and ignored -- found in each other the perverse strength to carry out a terrorist assault, suffuses "columbinus." (The title is Latin for "dove-like," the authors say.) In one blistering sequence, the boys nourish each other's destructive fury at their keyboards. The flurry of rage-stoked instant messages, projected onto an immense screen behind the stage, gives you an almost clinical sense of how the blending of two lonely and damaged souls could make for one incendiary cocktail.

In its rawest moments, "columbinus" leads you through the scary catacombs of American adolescence. The play doesn't only deal in effect. It wants you to see the probable cause, and it lays the blame for extreme disaffection among the most vulnerable of the young in a closed social hierarchy that can severely punish those who are weak, or indifferent to its rules. In a first act that posits a landscape of the American high school as more cutthroat than Wall Street, it is the jockocracy that is painted as the most malevolent force. Two actors with imposing muscles blithely taunt and toss around the slighter boys as if there were no possibility for payback. Teenagers are nothing if not shortsighted.

"Columbinus," presented in the style of a cautionary documentary, has some shortcomings. The impressionistic first act, which in purposefully generic fashion explores the pressures and identity crises that occur on the cusp of adulthood, is repetitive and overlong. Some incidents, such as the reading aloud in class of an actual essay rife with violent images by Klebold, are searing, even surreally funny. (The disembodied voice of a teacher interrupts to correct Klebold's grammar.) But other scenes merely recall obvious moments from a thousand TV shows -- parents at a dinner table who are too busy to listen, for instance -- or they underline the same point again and again about the dark side of the need to kowtow or conform.

In the more graphic second act, the violence is followed by a predictable earnestness of a sort that calls to mind the perfunctory solemnity of a cable news recap.

Nevertheless, the production, directed with a surefire sense of theatricality by PJ Paparelli and performed by a flawless cast of eight, offers invaluable insight into the primitive psychological warfare that goes on in high school hallways and cafeterias. The script, by a writing team headed by Paparelli, former associate director of Washington's Shakespeare Theatre and now artistic director of the Perseverance Theatre in Juneau, Alaska, is heavily based on research. (Stephen Karam and Sean McNall are credited as co-writers.) The words of Harris and Klebold, as well as court records, statements of Columbine witnesses and interviews with high school students across the country are incorporated into the proceedings. Other conversations are invented.

This technique is borrowed from a burgeoning genre, that of fact-based plays like "The Laramie Project," about the hate-crime murder of a gay man in Wyoming, and "The Exonerated," an evening pieced together from the testimony of death row inmates whose sentences had been commuted or overturned.

The play moves inexorably through a depiction of the everyday agonies of high school to the specific events that fueled the wrath at Columbine. In a series of monologues, the actors, portraying a variety of familiar types (the geek, the goth, the prep) unburden themselves to us. Required to attempt a foul shot in a pickup game of basketball, a non-athlete (James Flanagan) confides his paralyzing fear of humiliation. Frozen in a spotlight -- Dan Covey's lighting is excellent throughout -- the terrified young man is utterly alone.

At this tender age, everyone is locked in solitary confinement with his insecurities. Most kids, "columbinus" suggests, serve out their sentences, scarred but intact. For a few others, the psychic isolation can have deadly consequences.

Paparelli orchestrates theater technology expertly. JJ Kaczynski's projections are consistently vivid and precisely timed, and Martin Desjardins's sound design fills the space with the ambient noise of adolescence. You'd know that metallic boooop!, signaling the end of a classroom period, anywhere. More piercingly, Desjardins creates a soundscape for gunfire that invades the senses as intimately as blood beating against the eardrum.

Nowhere is the precision more apparent than in the work of the actors playing the killers. Rogers's Klebold is a semisweet counterpoint to Miller's sour Harris. You can imagine Rogers's fumbling character having endured in a marginal niche had he not found Harris. In the most tender moment "columbinus" accords him, Rogers awkwardly tries to reach out to a drama-club girl (Ekatrina Oleska) who has asked him to rehearse the balcony scene from "Romeo and Juliet."

But in this real-life teenage tragedy, it is Harris with whom Klebold seals his suicide pact. They map out their siege in a savage scene in which each, in turn, melts down and recovers. It's the mutual validation they find that leads to disaster. But it's Miller's Harris who lights the fuse. He plays Harris as a clueless volcano, angry at everything and at a loss to understand why. At a poignant turn in the story, a bully knocks his bottle of antidepressants to the ground and he's forced to grope for his pills on his hands and knees, to salvage his one source of stability.

The daily indignities and brutalities to which Harris and Klebold are subjected do not, of course, fully explain their barbaric act. The piece at one point suggests a parallel between Harris and Klebold and the notorious young joy-killers of the 1920s, Leopold and Loeb. The comparison is useful. If, at times, "columbinus" employs a grievous event for its own purposes, it never lowers itself to the kind of sensationalism that dogged the case of Leopold and Loeb. At its best, the play is a plea for illuminating the corrosive secrets young people harbor, secrets that should not have led two mixed-up boys and more than a dozen others to early graves.

columbinus , written by Stephen Karam, Sean McNall and PJ Paparelli, with contributions from Josh Barrett, Karl Miller, Michael Milligan and Will Rogers. Directed by Paparelli. Set, Tony Cisek; costumes, Denise Umland; lighting, Dan Covey; sound, Martin Desjardins; projections, JJ Kaczynski; dramaturge, Patricia Hersch. With Daniel Frith, Gene Gillette, Jeanne Dillon, Anne Bowles. Approximately 2 hours 30 minutes. Through April 3 at Round House Silver Spring, 8641 Colesville Rd., Silver Spring. Call 240-644-1100 or visit www.roundhousetheatre.org .

Karl Miller, left, as Eric Harris and Will Rogers as Dylan Klebold, who massacred 13 in their school.

As high schoolers, Will Rogers, above left, Gene Gillette, Daniel Frith, Jeanne Dillon, James Flanagan and Anne Bowles deal with the pressures; and Karl Miller as Eric Harris, left, records a rage-filled video in "columbinus."

As high schoolers, Will Rogers, above left, Gene Gillette, Daniel Frith, Jeanne Dillon, James Flanagan and Anne Bowles deal with the pressures; and Karl Miller as Eric Harris, left, records a rage-filled video in "columbinus."

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