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Stage Review

‘Columbinus’ dismays and disturbs at the Paramount

Matt Bausone and Eric Folks in ArtsEmerson’s production of “columbinus” at the Paramount Center.
Matt Bausone and Eric Folks in ArtsEmerson’s production of “columbinus” at the Paramount Center. Michael Brosilow

Toward the end of the first act of “columbinus,” the character named Faith addresses Jesus, saying, “I don’t know, Lord. Tell me. Maybe that’s why Your teenage years are such a mystery.” Teenage years are the subject of this 2005 play, which meditates on the 1999 Columbine High School massacre in Littleton, Colo., in which Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold killed 12 students and a teacher. And though the disturbing, well-acted, occasionally self-indulgent production that American Theater Company has brought to the Paramount Center includes the third act that writers Stephen Karam and PJ Paparelli added to the original two earlier this year, the mystery remains.

The play itself — Paparelli calls it a “theatrical discussion” — is something of a mystery. At the outset, we’re told that “The characters were created from interviews and conversations with teenagers from across the country.” But the result seems remarkably generic. The first act is populated by eight stereotypes — Faith (Leah Raidt), Perfect (Erica Elam), Rebel (Sadieh Rifai), Jock (Jerry MacKinnon), Prep (Rob Fenton), AP (Tyler Ravelson), Freak (Matt Bausone), and Loner (Eric Folks) — who spend most of their time insulting one another. Perfect pretends to compliment Faith on her shirt and then says, “Did you make it?” Jock pulls Loner’s chair out from under him. Loner helps Rebel rehearse the Balcony Scene from “Romeo and Juliet” but can’t make himself into a real-life Romeo. AP sinks a free throw to win a basketball game but then wets his pants. Freak asks Faith to the prom, but her parents object. Perfect has sex with her boyfriend and gets pregnant. It’s a study in the banality of adolescence, and often voiced in the form of four-letter words. As for the adults, they’re clueless, except for the teacher who gets Freak and Loner going on the idea of natural selection.

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But this all comes to life on the Jackie Liebergott Black Box stage as the actors give individuality to their roles. At first, the eight students are united in the misery of a typical school day: crawling out of bed, struggling into clothes, zipping through breakfast with the ’rents, running for the bus, all to Gary Jules’s “Mad World” (“The dreams in which I’m dying are the best I’ve ever had”). And though there are clues in their attire (Prep has a polo player on his shirt, Jock a Nike swoosh; Faith wears a cross), you have to guess at who’s who. Some even have a sense of humor. But gradually they retreat into their boxes. Sniping leads to bullying; disrespect is rampant. By the end of the act, each of the eight is doing his or her own thing. Freak and Loner have hooked up, and their thing involves pipe bombs and guns.

Act two is another story. Freak and Loner morph into Eric and Dylan, and the events of April 20, 1999, are replayed, including the 911 call that teacher Patti Nielson placed from the school library. It’s a chilling, and complex, sequence, with statements from the two like “Don’t blame my family, they had no clue” and “This was our choice” juxtaposed against “Your children who have ridiculed me, who have chosen not to accept me are dead.” Bausone and Folks may not offer any clue as to “why,” but they paint a detailed “who.” And when they face you with shotgun and semi-automatic handgun and shots are heard, you could be forgiven for feeling a little jumpy. It gets tougher: As Eric and Dylan make their way through the library, Bausone and Folks stand at the big blackboard at the rear of the stage, with their backs to the audience, and every time they pound that blackboard with their fists, another kid dies.

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Act three is an anticlimax, extending the show from two hours to nearly three. The actors play distressed parents, a police officer, a preacher, Columbine’s high-school principal, and students suffering survivor’s guilt. People grieve, they squabble, they try to move on. But we’re transfixed by the projected photos of the 12 students and one teacher whom Harris and Klebold killed. The students all have kind, caring faces; they don’t look at all like the kids from “columbinus.” There’s another mystery.

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Jeffrey Gantz can be reached at jeffreymgantz@gmail.com.