The Columbine Project
nytheatre.com review by Kristin Skye Hoffmann
August 3, 2009
On April 20, 1999, I was home sick from school in Pueblo, Colorado. I was a junior in high school, and when I got up and turned on the television that morning, I watched hours on end of coverage on the news. It was on every channel. Two boys had gone into their high school in Littleton, Colorado, mere miles from my home town, and started killing people. There is no question that the tragedy at Columbine High School affected the world. School is supposed to be a safe place and by violating that sense of security Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold changed history. When I became aware that a show about this event was being produced in the style of The Laramie Project (of which I am a great fan), I jumped at the chance to see it. I was excited to see a smart, unbiased commentary about a subject to which I am extremely connected. Unfortunately, that is not what I saw.
Writer/director Paul Anthony Storiale has assembled a very dedicated cast, but the play itself seems designed to convey Storiale's own opinions. The agenda Storiale has put together includes the following:
- The Littleton Police Department refuses to release information to the families of the victims and the general public.
- The police did not enter the school nearly soon enough to save the lives of the students and teachers within.
- Columbine High School was a bad place to be a student—a place that was infested by prejudice, mean-spirited "jocks" and teachers, and that being different at this school resulted in being tormented for the duration of a student's time there.
Now, all of these ideas could actually be based in truth and to be honest I personally do not necessarily disagree with them, but the way they are presented here came off preachy and factual, when it is not clear what aspects actually are indeed factual. I was disturbed to discover that Storiale did not include any director's notes or even a list of references in the program.
The abstract scenes are presented out of sequence, taking us to moments before the tragedy, interactions between Harris and Klebold and with parents, students and teachers, as well as moments of the individual victims and their own families and friends. All of this is bookended by contemporary songs played mournfully by the presumably gay character Chris (portrayed by Bradley Michael). The songs are pretty, but borderline melodramatic. It felt as if Storiale was not confident that the actual occurrences were sad enough to make the audience cry so he was attempting to illicit tears. I myself left with extremely dry eyes.
This is not to say there are not emotional moments. At one point the library teacher, Patti Nielson (played by Kelli Joan Bennett), shrieks from offstage for everyone to get under the tables. My eyes immediately welled. But this was not due not so much to the performance, but to the subject. If Storiale had stuck more to the real content of these real people, rather than speculating about what and who these people could have been, it would have been easier to take The Columbine Project seriously.
Although most of the cast is swallowed up by the themes of this show, there are a few standout performances that should be noted. Marguerite Wiseman's portrayal of Vonda Shoels is breathtaking. Vonda Shoels was the mother of the only African American victim at Columbine. It is clear that Wiseman knows she is playing a real woman and is therefore honest, connected, and touching. I was also impressed by Evan Enslow's portrayal of Brookes Brown, a former "friend" of Harris and Klebold who allegedly became guilty by association in the eyes of his community. In a group of tacked-on caricatures and stereotypes of real people, Enslow's Brookes is real. He is subtle in his troubled youth and his need for answers. He should be commended for that.
The most impressive performance comes from Justin Mortelliti as Dylan Klebold. Mortelliti embraces Klebold, a confirmed killer, and does not judge him. He does a beautiful job with his monologues which may or may not have been some of Klebold's poetry. He made me sympathize with the juvenile poetry that pours from so many of America's troubled youths. Mortelliti is a natural and he took me with him. In comparison, Artie Ahr's interpretation of Eric Harris is the exact opposite. It seemed that Ahr has judged Harris, which results in a flat performance. The opportunity to play a convincing sociopath, manipulative and tragic, has been lost. Ahr's Harris is a villain, and it seems that in Storiale's eyes, he is the only villain in this disaster. It is this that has taken the potential of this idea and struck it down. The final block of evidence is that the actors portraying Harris and Klebold were not even permitted a curtain call when the rest of the cast was, putting the punctuation on the bias that pervades the production.