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'The Columbine Project' & the Lie of the American Dream

It’s hard to say anything bad about a play that has its heart so firmly in the right place that to say anything even remotely negative is to betray it. Not that I have anything that terrible to say about the latest production of the award-winning play The Columbine Project, which, if you haven’t already assumed, deals with the tragedy that occurred April 20, 1999. 

Written by Paul Storiale, The Columbine Project effectively handles a touchy subject with mindful restraint and respect for those involved. At the same time, it does not shy away from showing us the violence of that fateful day, because without it, the horror of what occurred wouldn’t have such a devastatingly lasting effect on the audience. 

The show is spare and simple with a black box set that utilizes few props and set pieces. The story maneuvers between time periods starting with a field journalist reporting on the shooting then shifts to weeks before when Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris were discussing their plans for that day, to years later when the victim’s families are still begging their town for answers.

At first, the shifting timelines and the alternating focus keeps the audience off-balance, but this is a show that builds in intensity as well as thoughtfulness. It also fairly represents everyone involved without making us choose sides.  The show presents the events, but in them we begin to ask questions. 

Harris and Klebold aren’t portrayed as simple lunatics, they are given rounded characters. Eric Harris (Riley Bodenstab) is subtly drawn as a borderline psychopath, manipulating everyone around him into believing he has it all together when deep down he is not only in pain, but plotting one of the most tragic mass murders in American history.   

Dylan Klebold (Morgan Roberts) is probably the best drawn of the large cast of characters, showing us a boy who was desperately trying to find himself and teetered on the brink of doing the right thing. But when manipulated by Harris, all reason was thrown out the window and he choice to act out. As played by Roberts, he is a boy with more to offer the world, but his ability to be influenced by Harris made those possibilities too far-reaching.   

Shifting through a maze of characters, The Columbine Project allows us into the world of Klebold and Harris’s “friends,” their parents, various lawyers, teachers and law enforcement, the parents of those kids who were killed, as well as a variety of students they interacted with. Notably, Rachel Scott (Sara Swain), the Christian girl with an open mind and heart that is shot on the school’s lawn and has became a worldwide inspiration in her own right. 

As these various story threads weave in and out connecting and re-connecting, the power of the play becomes greater. When the tragedy of that fateful day is played out in restrained but brutal frankness, the horror comes crashing home.   

There are aspects of this production that don’t completely work such as a few awkward transitions. In one instance, a very emotional monologue by Mrs. Shoels (Pamela Taylor) whose African-American son was killed in the library of the school is suddenly shifted into a scene of light-hearted conversation with her son that seemed jarring. The gunshot sound effects which need to be startling and horrific come across like whispers rather than screams.    

But those are minor quibbles when the cast works very well as an ensemble, and while some succeed in their roles more than others, it’s hard to complain about it when the result is so emotional.  

Special note goes to Morgan Roberts who plays Klebold. He’s been with the cast since the beginning (the show is an off-Broadway success story), and his work shows. Completely effective in the role, he creates a character that becomes, for me, one of the most tragic figures of recent American history. We understand what he wants from his life, but we also understand how he allows himself to be manipulated by Harris. The character is devastating because we are allowed to see just how close this boy was from making the right choices, and how small moments tipped his hat in the wrong direction. If ever there was an illustration of how bullying and lying affect the young, this is it. 

While it is well worth it to see the show, it is also a treat to see it when the cast comes out for a Q&A after the show. Here they provide really interesting insight into the writing of the play and what is and isn’t truth. Incidentally, according to Assistant Director and actor Bree Pavey, everything you see is real and true. Apparently, both Harris and Klebold’s journals are online and even a videotape they made prior to their assault on the school was partly transcribed in order to give that scene of the show its truth.  

But more so, this is a time for people to express their feelings on the events themselves. Some members of the audience lived in Littleton, Colo., and/or knew people that survived the tragedy. Other people questioned why it all happened. While Goth music and violent videogames seemed to be the blame at the time, Pavey points out that Goth Metal music comes from Germany and videogames began in Japan: two places where this type of tragedy doesn’t occur. So why here? 

Jack Millard who plays a variety of roles spoke up about this. Being part Japanese he made a point that in Japanese culture, young people’s frustration with the world and their lives cause teenagers to focus their anger inward, which is why teenage suicide in Japan is so prevalent. Here in America, we express that anger outward. Which made me wonder why?   

Maybe I’m wrong, but I think that in the United States, we grow up with the promise of the "American Dream." It’s a vague expression of hope because no one ever defines what that dream is except for adults to say to the young, “you can be anything you want to be.” But that’s not necessarily true. Everyone’s situation is different, whether it be social status, geography, genetics or simple ability to do or not do a particular “thing.” But when we’ve been promised the world and the world doesn’t deliver, kids get frustrated. They get angry. Teenagers have been taught, in a way, that they are entitled to anything they want, but never told about all the gray areas that might prevent that from happening. Therein lays the disappointment. 

There are a hundred other contributing factors such as adult complacency, bullying and school systems in general, but it seems that when the American Dream isn’t being realized, kids want to act out.  They get angry because of a promise broken. Nothing is their fault, it’s everyone else’s. Even when maybe it’s no one’s fault at all. It’s just the way the world is. But when you’re promised the moon, how can you not be disappointed when the moon doesn’t show up at your front door?

I have no answers to this and I’m not sure how this can be changed for future generations. There needs to be a move away from competition and “winning” to a more compassionate life of tolerance, acceptance and cooperation. We need to not look at ourselves as divided from each other, but a part of each other. Only then I think will we ever change our perception of our places in the world. What it takes to make that happen is anybody’s guess. 

The Columbine Project is playing at The Avery Schreiber Theatre in North Hollywood. Performances run May 5, 6, 7, 13, 14 at 8 p.m. Visit or call (818) 766-9100 for tickets.

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