K-State production ‘columbinus’ focuses on shootings

By Gary Clift

K-State’s Chapman Theater (nee Nichols Theater) is the venue for an exemplary new campus theater program production. Prof. Jennifer Vellenga has directed “columbinus” (note the lower case “c” and the differentiated “us”), a 2005 play written by Stephen Karam and PJ Parparelli (note the lack of periods). The emotionally effective show runs Oct. 17-20.

The production uses eight student actors, most of them playing different parts at different times. Among them are familiar performers like Joey “Music Man” Boos and former MHS Thespian Bella Alonso. It is a good cast, a courageous cast, well-prepared and adroit. Together the cast members act as a Greek chorus and individually they play students at Columbine High School, staff members there, parents of the students, and the two trench-coat wearing shooters who killed fifteen people in the Littleton, Colorado school one day in 1999.

Dana Pinkston’s simple costumes allow the young performers to change their looks as circumstances require. Kathy Voecks’s set also provides opportunity while staying out of the way. The evening begins with three rows of black backpacks on the stage, some simple furniture stacked and ready at the back, and a large blackboard and an even larger expanse of cyclone fence in place of a backdrop. Most of the constructed surfaces, we learned, take chalk drawing pretty well.

Not only were computers and dinner plates represented by drawings, but the blackboard provided space for writing (the names of the victims went up there late in the show) and acted as a screen onto which guest lighting designer Greg Purnell projected scene titles, dates and times, computer “chat,” reproductions of yearbook pictures and social worker reports, and eventually a running transcript of what must have been the actual 911 call from the school.

At the same time the transcript rolled up, we heard the call. Earlier the voices of David Ollington and Diana Watts figured in interviews the shooters had with counselors and others. So this was a sort of multi-media show, with cinematic technology.

The play’s first act demonstrated the daily life of students in the school. Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris had trouble fitting in socially and were apparently the victims of almost constant “bullying.” The picture of school life is pretty much the one we hear and see dramatized fairly frequently. I guess nobody is happy in high school these days.

The adults responsible for noticing that Klebold and Harris were especially unhappy about their adolescent lives seem to have been distracted or easily conned. But the play, which in its second act dramatizes the final hours before the shooting and—with substantial restraint—the massacre itself, is very much conscious that viewers will be looking for someone or something to blame for the events.

In a post-shooting scene, characters list the popular possible scape-goats for school violence and reject them all. While this seems right and rational, it also makes playgoers wonder why this incident has been dramatized. Topics are rarely the basis for good theater.  And in the case of “columbinus,” the excuse that the dramatization is intended as a basis for productive discussion is undercut by the playwrights’ dismissal of the usual blame targets.

So. Why this play? The evening I saw this “columbinus,” the audience was moved and gave the show standing applause, something we’ve rarely seen in Nichols, even when the plays have been very popular. Were the members of the crowd standing because, as is sometimes the case with entertainments in the McCain series, the evening had gone on too long and ticket-holders were wanting to get home?

There may have been some of that. But I think many of the audience members were expressing the intensity of their emotional reaction to the material and the production. Fifteen people, all but one of them teenaged, died violently and unnecessarily, so there is reason for our disgust. Is reminding us that we felt really bad in 1999 the same as giving us a good play? It seemed to me that this is the real controversy prompted by the theatrical evening.

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