For a drama about one of the most infamous school shootings in US history, “columbinus” is remarkably unbloody. The play, which is being staged by ArtsEmerson for 10 performances starting Sept. 17, documents every grim detail of the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colo., in which teenagers Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris murdered 12 students and a teacher before committing suicide. But despite the subject matter, there isn’t one shot fired in “columbinus.”
P J Paparelli, who co-wrote “columbinus” with Stephen Karam, never wanted it any other way. “We didn’t want this to be about shock value,” he says. Even so, the play’s second act, which recounts the rampage, still manages to be shocking. It’s part staged reinterpretation, part documentary. Photos of the two killers are projected above the stage, and a recording of a 911 call from a woman trapped in the school library is played almost in its entirety. As for the murders, those details are conveyed mostly with words. “We let the victims’ testimony come forward,” Paparelli says. Dylan and Eric “are turned away from the audience in the shooting scene. We didn’t want it to be about them.”
It’s a powerful production, but is Boston ready for a theatrical retelling of a mass murder by a pair of young men just five months after the Boston Marathon bombings? For many, emotions are still raw about the violence that left four people dead and injured more than 260. In July, after bombing suspect Dzhokhar Tsarnaev appeared on the cover of Rolling Stone, the public’s reaction, especially in Boston, was outrage. Boston Mayor Thomas M. Menino, in a letter to publisher Jann Wenner, said the cover reaffirmed “a terrible message that destruction gains fame for killers and their causes.”
Critics could argue that “columbinus” is doing exactly the same thing. The show doesn’t attempt to romanticize the killers, but it gives them another moment in the spotlight.
Eric Folks, the 26-year-old actor who plays Dylan, doesn’t think the real Dylan would have been especially happy with “columbinus.” “We see so much of the pain and ridicule and fear and embarrassment that put them down this path,” he says. “I don’t think that’s something they wanted shared.”
Paparelli agrees that “columbinus” humanizes the teens. “It was important for us to see the other side,” he says. “For many of the survivors, they didn’t want to acknowledge Dylan and Eric as children. They were just the enemy.”
Paparelli is explaining this while sitting in a Starbucks in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood, a short distance from the American Theater Company, where “columbinus” (the title is Latin for “dove-like”) just finished a successful revival. He talks about the show — which he based on years of interviews with survivors, friends and family of the victims, and law enforcement, as well as diaries and videos left behind by the shooters — and the normally noisy coffee shop is like a library. All around him, people are sipping their lattes and pretending not to listen.
“We wanted to show their frustrations with each other, their doubts, their screams of looking for another way out,” Paparelli says of Dylan and Eric. “None of this sympathizes with them, but it paints a picture of what these adolescents could have — could have, could have — gone through.”
Judy Brown is a parent of one of the Columbine survivors. (Eric Harris purportedly spared her son.) She agrees that the killers should be remembered as children. “Dylan came to my house many times,” she says. “He was a sensitive child and a good kid. But he changed into a killer.”
Even today, referring to the killers by name inspires ire from her neighbors in Littleton. “That’s how sensitive it is here,” she says. “They don’t want me to call him Dylan, because they think it makes him sound childlike. They want me to call him ‘Murderer.’ ”
Time hasn’t healed those wounds, but it has made many of the survivors more willing to reflect on the tragedy. The play premiered in 2005, but until the recent Chicago revival, most of the survivors, even those who had shared their stories with Paparelli, had never seen a live performance of the show.
“This time was different,” Paparelli says. “People who lost their children sat in the [Chicago] theater and watched a very difficult play. They told me, ‘I couldn’t have done this five, six years ago. But I needed to see it now.’ ”
Brown remembers coming to a Chicago rehearsal and seeing Matt Bausone, who plays Eric, walking into the theater. “We didn’t know who he was,” she says. “But I turned to my husband and said, ‘That’s Eric.’ The way he looked, the way he carried himself and held his backpack, it could have totally been him.”
“Columbinus” already has a controversial relationship with the Boston area. In 2011, a production was planned at Lexington High School, but the school’s principal canceled the show after parents complained.
It eventually found a home, thanks to the Huntington Theatre Company, which gave it space for a limited run at the Calderwood Pavilion. Paparelli has since added a third act, after returning to Littleton last year to explore the “grieving process” among those who are still trying to make peace with what happened. And that may be the larger message of “columbinus.”
“The desire for the community to move on prevented them from going through the cycles of grief that humans have to go through,” says Paparelli. “With the Boston bombings, you have a community that’s looking for immediate justice. But it’s never that easy.”
ArtsEmerson’s presentation of “columbinus” was planned before the Marathon bombings. When he heard about the attack, Paparelli remembers thinking, “That might be it for us.”
But David Dower, ArtsEmerson’s director of artistic programs, thinks the timing couldn’t be more appropriate. “It feels to me that the play will actually give some of us a distance and perspective on what we have been through,” he says. “Equating two such different, and remote, events is problematic in a general sense, but the play deals in such specifics that we will see both the similarities and the differences in sharp relief.”
Is Boston ready for “columbinus”? Whatever the reaction, Paparelli thinks it’ll be healthy. “The social consciousness of a community is connected to the way in which it receives this play. Because it begs the conversation,” he says. “I think it’ll be good for Boston. It won’t be easy, but it’ll be good.”
Eric Spitznagel can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.