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Center Stage

An atrocity revisited

10/14/2015

To review “Columbinus” seems almost obscene. More than a play, it’s a holocaust, revisiting the devastation at Columbine High School in 1999. The second act unfolds entirely in the words of the shooters and their victims. Since then, too, the country has witnessed the terrifying truth of one of the script’s closing lines: “Columbine is no different from any other high school in the United States!”

“Columbinus.” Des Moines Young Artists Theater, library, East High School. Fri. - Sat. Oct. 16-17, 7:30 p.m.; Sun. Oct. 18, 2 p.m.

“Columbinus.” Des Moines Young Artists Theater, library, East High School. Fri. – Sat. Oct. 16-17, 7:30 p.m.; Sun. Oct. 18, 2 p.m.

Heightening that chill of recognition, this production is set in the East High library — recalling the Columbine library, which saw the worst slaughter. Really, it can seem atrocious to sit in the audience thinking, “Four stars? Five?”

Nonetheless, I have to rank this effort highly, and first for just that — its engagement with our troubled world.

Also, the show has head-spinning effects. The projections on a screen above the “stage” area range from a hair-raising exchange of texts to a Hitler Youth documentary, an array marred only by one or two washed-out photos. Better yet, the man who handles the projection, Tommy Anderson, is one of a winning ensemble of actors.

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Another player, Roosevelt sophomore Anna Neal, proves the most flexible. Neal finds the right vocal key, whether she’s a potty-mouthed girl or a weeping mother. Neal fascinates even when she doesn’t say a word, swapping off between Bible worship and bulimic purges into a wastebasket.

A silent sequence just before intermission shows off David Van Cleave’s directorial chops. Most of the cast acts out their demons, like bulimia, on two levels, stage front, all in shadow (Van Cleave himself handled the lighting). Meanwhile, the audience becomes aware the killers lurk behind them on a window ledge rejoicing at the others’ pain.

Center StageOne of those two is Anderson, who meets the challenge of the sociopath Eric Harris, known only as “Freak” in the first act. His downturned pout conveys both adolescent misery and animal menace, and you don’t want to hear him promise, voice breaking: “I will be coming for you!” But then, Harris is the more vivid role, more psychotic. The show’s success also owes a lot to Roan Withers as Dylan Klebold (“Loner” in Act I), simmering with quiet nihilism. Dylan starts the single onstage fight, utterly believable, but otherwise he’s the image of a boy withdrawn to dark places.

Really, other than one or two problems with sound — the 911 call was largely inaudible — “Columbinus” proves gripping and successful. The script, on the other hand, drags. Writers Stephen Karam and P.J. Paparelli used both 1999 material and later research for the first act, working up a greater tragedy of communication breakdown. But as everyone from parents to peers fails to see the nightmare developing, scenes begin to feel redundant. We get tense moments, but little building tension. Maybe a horror like Columbine — or Newtown, or Roseburg — is still looking for the dramatic talent large enough to handle it.

Overheard in the Lobby: This weekend the Playhouse presents “Yesterday and Today,” in which the audience chooses the songs for a live Beatles set. CV

John Domini is a published local author who has lived on both coasts and abroad and enjoyed theater everywhere. See www.johndomini.com

 

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