ArtEmerson’s ‘Columbinus’ is for the ones left behind

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Most times, we go to the theater simply to be entertained. And there are plenty of productions — from “Shrek” to “The Addams Family” — staged in this town that do just that. Sometimes, however, we go to the theater to think, to feel and to — hopefully — leave a little bit different than when we came in.

“Columbinus,” which opened ArtsEmerson’s fall season, offers a most compelling experience on the latter end of the theater spectrum.

With respect to the considerable challenge of bringing the 1999 Columbine High School massacre to the stage both tastefully and creatively, “Columbinus” offers a harrowing, uniquely human look into the dark side of modern American culture. It’s a work that now, more than ever, feels both relevant and necessary.

“Theater has ventured so far into pure entertainment that it’s become ridiculous,” says “Columbinus” conceiver and co-writer PJ Paparelli from Chicago. Reflecting on the impetus for the show’s production (which he began working on in 2002 with Stephen Karam), the writer points to frustration that he and other artists in his circle were feeling concerning the Iraq War. But with the Iraq War, there was no one single story.

In the case of the Columbine high school shootings though, there was a single story that was in many ways equally disturbing to the war abroad. The question was how to bring it to the stage.

““The Laramie Project” reminded theater makers that they have the power to effect change and make people think,” says Paparelli about the documentary-style theater landmark production, which dealt with the hate-crime killing of Matthew Shepard. “Columbinus” was created in a method similar to “Laramie,” using hundreds of interviews, police reports and descriptions of real footage to construct the three-act show.

This is not the first time that the production has been seen in New England. Some might remember an incident in 2011 when a Lexington High School production was canceled due to its controversial nature, but was eventually performed at the Huntington Theater Company. That was the two-act version, where the first act was presented as a collage of interviews conducted with everyday teens in what Paparelli describes as “a music video of adolescence.” The second act takes us to the actual school on the day of the shootings. Unfortunately, we know how it is going to end. But we have room to consider why it is happening.

“It’s about the adolescent world, disconnection from the adult world, the way [kids] treat each other,” says Paparelli. “Also, the way suburban high schools in America have this almost caste system, and how [shooters Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris] were byproducts of that system—outsiders that become friends by default.”

Interestingly, a new third act was added to the play in late 2012. Paparelli conducted numerous follow-up interviews with survivors and learned that most were still dealing with the tragedy’s aftermath. His new act synthesizes these interviews into a critical epilogue that focuses on reflection and healing.

“Shootings were something that people were aware of, but they happened somewhere else,” says Paparelli of the shootings and bombings that have since become a part of our psyche. “Columbinus” makes no effort to offer solutions or provide escape but rather, he says, to simply bear witness. “It is something that the news can’t achieve.”

‘Columbinus’
Sept. 17-29
The Jackie Liebergott Black Box Theatre
Paramount Center
559 Washington St., Boston
$25 –$59, 617-824-8400
artsemerson.org


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