The images, the horror, and the heartbreak transfixed the nation when two high school students opened fire at Columbine High School, killing 12 of their fellow students and one teacher. For those of us who remember the massacre on April 20, 1999, the agonized recriminations after the shootings are nearly as vivid as the havoc wreaked by Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold.
Portraits of the killers ranged from tormented to demented. Had they been twisted by movie and TV violence? Video games? Bullying classmates? Were the true culprits their clueless parents and school advisors? How many other walking timebombs lurked in high schools across America -- and what are the clues that we should be watching for before they go off?
Harris and Klebold will never be able to provide insight ... as result of their suicides.
Now, an ensemble of eight Providence High School students -- whose parents likely hoped they wouldn't remember Columbine so vividly when they came home from school that day -- are performing a hard-hitting play that recreates the events and dramatizes their causes. Columbinus, by Stephen Karam and PJ Paparelli of the United States Theatre Project, was created with the same scrupulous methods used by the Tectonic Theatre when they created their groundbreaking Laramie Project.
They went to the scene of the crime instead of imagining it, and they interviewed students, teachers and parents in Littleton, Colo., instead of presuming to speak for them. They wove their script from what they learned.
So this isn't your typical holiday bonbon. Nor is it your typical high school theater presentation. James Yost, who teaches at Providence and is directing Columbinus, freely admits that he was thinking outside the box when he decided on this daring drama -- and outside the campus.
"I'm always impressed by the level of talent at Providence," Yost confides. "We have several kids who were involved with the Children's Theatre Ensemble and other kids who are going on to college, and this is what they want to do in life. So, I thought it would be nice to showcase some of that talent in the community."
Yost, you may remember, was a co-founder of BareBones Theatre Group, a company that proclaimed itself "theatre that makes you think" and never trafficked in Yuletide saccharine. So Yost really didn't pick the holiday season for Columbinus and the Chaos Ensemble. The Duke Power Theatre picked them, through a deep discount offered by Tom Gabbard and Douglas Young at the N.C. Blumenthal Performing Arts Center.
Otherwise, the space would have remained unused -- and the Charlotte theater scene could have maintained its dubious distinction of going totally soft and miraculously mushy during the holidays.
Yost realizes that Columbinus is far from the wholesome family fare that dominates the performing arts calendar in December, and that there are many adults -- presumably those who haven't seen the prodigies produced by Northwest School of the Arts, Children's Theatre Ensemble, Providence, or Fort Mill High -- who are ignorantly leery of high school theatricals. So he's counting on Columbinus to stimulate thought about macho culture, bullying and the hallowed right to bear arms and also to change some minds about what high school kids are capable of.
"These are young actors who are presenting plays that are challenging and very appropriate for the time," Yost insists. "Ultimately, Columbinus is a play about school violence, and it's a play about bullying. It's a play about the extremes that people are capable of going to, and that is what the kids can relate to, even though they may not remember the incident. No matter how old you are, it makes sense to see a play about high school kids that features high school performers."
Tanner Agle as "Freak" and Brandon Rafelson "Loner" are the key Littleton misfits of Columbinus. Other members of the Chaos Ensemble include Jenna Buthman, Cameron Carswell, Nathan Conners, Patrick Kotula, Kevin Martin, and Kelly Wright.
Evening performances at Duke Energy Theatre, Dec. 17-19, begin at 7:30 p.m. There are also two 2 p.m. matinees Dec. 19-20. All tickets are $7, available at 704-372-1000 and carolinatix.org. Additional details are online at the Ensemble's Web site: chaosensemble.webs.com.
More performing arts attractions
• In its fourth season, the Starving Artist production of The Birth moves from CAST to Actor's Theatre, at 650 E. Stonewall. Inspired by the works of minister and Pulitzer prize-nominated author, Frederick Buechner, The Birth promises "a reflective celebration of the coming of Christ" with performances at 6:30 p.m. and 8:30 p.m. Dec. 13-14 and 20-21. Tickets are $12 with more info at www.thebirth.net.
• Joe Rux, who is taking over the role of the Narrator in The Birth, is also repeating his turn as Crumpet in The Santaland Diaries, also at Actor's Theatre. These cabaret-style shows start Dec. 10 and go through Dec. 20, shows running midweek through Sunday matinee. Tickets for Santaland are $15 for Actor's Theatre subscribers, $20 for civilians, and is rated for mature elves only. More info at www.actorstheatrecharlotte.org.
• N.C. Dance Theatre returns with their splendiferous production of The Nutcracker at Belk Theater. The Jean-Pierre Bonnefoux choreography is pure enchantment, Dec. 11-13 and 18-20, with Friday performances at 7 p.m., and weekend performances at 2 p.m. and 7 p.m. More info at www.ncdance.org.
• A very minty Broadway Christmas Carol will play at the Mint Museum, 2730 Randolph Road, presented in an improved version by Actor's Scene Unseen Dec. 18-20. Evening performances Friday and Saturday are at 7:30 p.m., Saturday and Sunday matinees are at 2 p.m., with tickets priced at $18-$25. Visit www.actorssceneunseen.com for more information.
• The Singing Sapling? Not exactly. But Carolina Voices is, er, branching out. Perpetrators of the infamous Singing Christmas Tree (Dec. 12-13), in its 55th year at Ovens Auditorium, Carolina Voices is also offering a Singing Christmas Tree for Kids at Ovens at 11 a.m. on Dec. 12. Tickets are $9-$16. You won't be alone if you go, since Lunch With Santa is already sold out.