Paul Storiale’s The Columbine Project attempts the impossible—to document, explore, and try to make sense of the 1999 massacre of twelve students and one teacher at Columbine High School, outside of Denver, Colorado. Against all odds, The Columbine Project proves a triumph for the writer-producer-director and his cast of twenty-one mostly very young actors. That Storiale has been able not only to explore the hows and whys of that most horrific of days, but that he has also somehow managed to fill his stage with nearly two dozen gifted performers is nothing short of miraculous.

Artie Ahr and Justin Mortelliti head the cast, as teen killers Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, and both give absolutely devastating performances.  Ahr so totally disappears into the skin of sociopathic Eric that this reviewer had to remind himself that it was only a performance when chatting with the L.A. newcomer following Saturday’s Q & A.  Mortelliti is equally stunning as the more introspective of the two, and the one so easily influenced by the deeply disturbed Eric.  Both actors deliver frightening monologs taken directly from the two’s writings.  Both do superb, indelible work.

The Columbine massacre remains the fourth most deadly school shooting in United States history, and the deadliest ever on a high school campus. 

The Columbine Project begins with a TV reporter (a convincing Derek Meeker) reporting live from the scene of the massacre, his hands trembling.  “It is a war zone down here,” he declares over the sounds of helicopters circling above.  “Information is very scarce now as the gunpersons are still at large.”

The play then moves backwards and forwards in time, introducing us to Eric and Dylan’s teachers, classmates, and other Coloradans whose lives were changed forever on that April day.

We meet Dylan’s childhood friend Brooks Brown (an intense and unforgettable Evan Enslow), a different sort of Columbine victim.  “My friends did this and I was blamed for it, maligned and traumatized,” protests Brooks who, after the shootings, was offered a diploma in exchange for never going back to school again. “Why didn’t the police do anything about Eric’s website, with his plans, pipe bombs, threats?” continues Brooks, and then, passionately, “Somebody do something!”

We meet Chris Taylor (Bradley Michael, sensitive and stunning), a gay student tormented by jocks and befriended by fellow student Rachel Scott (an incandescent Rya Meyers).  We first see Chris accompanying himself on the guitar as he sings “No one knows what it’s like to be a mad man, to be a sad man behind blue eyes.” Later, Chris informs us, “You weren’t allowed to be different in Columbine.  Everyone was a faggot except the jocks. They knew I was queer before I did.” When Rachel finds a tearful Chris, she offers him  Kleenex and sympathy. “God loves you for how he made you,” she tells him, revealing herself to be the kind of open, accepting Christian not usually depicted on stage, film, or TV.  Rachel Scott would be Eric and Dylan’s first victim on that April day in 1999.

Later, the superb Meyers delivers an unforgettable monolog about Rachel’s diary, pierced with a bullet hole, and about Rachel’s reason for wearing her grandmother’s wedding ring her little finger: “I knew I wouldn’t live long enough to get married.”

We meet Wayne and Kathy Harris (Kelly McCracken and Kelli Joan Bennett) and see, not the defective, easy-to-blame parents we are expecting, but a loving couple who found it all too easy to ignore the warning signs their son was exhibiting. When Eric’s father learns about Eric’s having hacked into the school computer system, Dad doesn’t allow his son just an easy apology. When a classmate’s mother blames Eric for having broken her car window, the skillful young liar protests, “She’s just out to get me,” and loving mother that Mrs. Harris is, she believes him.  It is only after the tragedy that Eric’s mother realizes how manipulated both she and her husband have been.  Now, parents must pay for their son’s sins.  Lawsuits have been filed against them.  They’re finding themselves the victims of a witch-hunt.  They loved their son. They could not have been foreseen this tragedy.

We meet lawyer Alice Sparks (Bree Pavey, moving and multi-layered), hired by families of the victims, and learn that Eric and Dylan had in fact intended to kill 250 students and teachers with bombs which they planted on the school campus but which failed to detonate. Now, years later, family members are still asking for information and answers from the police.  Why did it take so long for law enforcement officers to enter the school building? Why are there so many holes in the police reports? A teacher’s open cell phone recorded 26 minutes of what was taking place in the library. Why won’t the police let the families hear the tape?

We meet Eric’s well-intentioned but clueless psychiatrist Dr. Nice (a fine Meeker again), so taken in by Eric’s Eddie Haskell-as-sociopath act that he prescribes drugs, to “level his head.”  

We meet Mrs. Kritch (a very believable Mikayla Park), teacher of Eric and Dylan’s Chinese Philosophy class, who didn’t see the warning signs in Eric’s talk about Hitler.

We meet Vonda Shoels (an extraordinary Marquerite Wiseman), the mother of Isaiah Shoels, shot and killed for being a “nigger.” In tears, Vonda expresses how angry she still is at the teacher who could have done something, gotten the students to barricade the library doors, but who spent five minutes with 911 before saving herself by hiding in a cupboard. And we meet Isaiah himself (Paul Nicholas Woolfolk, radiating charm), a boy who’d learned to use humor to get other kids to like him, telling his mother, “One day I’m going to be the President!” and we hear his proud mother’s reply. “Hold on to those dreams.  You can be whatever you want to be.”

We meet Columbine High School teacher “Mrs. Miller” (Pavey again) who overhears jocks Seth and Jake calling Brooks “faggot,” and defying our expectations, reprimands Brooks for making the athletes angry. “They have a game next week!” she chastises.  “Stop starting fights.  Maybe you should have joined some teams. Attendance at games should be mandatory.” 

We meet other Columbine High School students (including those portrayed by Jonathan Brett, Bobby Gold, and Sara Swain, doing excellent work all of them) who were part of Eric and Dylan’s life before April 20.

And most importantly, we meet the killers, Alpha Male Eric and his disciple Dylan.  “They’re going to make video games about us!” Eric proclaims proudly. “Eric and Dylan, the real natural born killers!” And later, “Let’s kill our parents the night before!” When Dylan returns from a college tour with reawakened hope for the future and a desire to abort their murderous plan, master manipulator Eric psychs him back into wanting to kill.

We see the boys as they get ready for their killing spree and hear Eric’s shocking declaration, “I wish I was a fucking sociopath so I wouldn’t feel any remorse.”  We hear his anger, his rage at a father in the military who uprooted his family so often that Eric has come to feel hated by everybody. We see Eric, the quick and easy liar, tell his unsuspecting mother that the gun she spots in his room is a pellet gun for a movie he and Dylan are making.  “Finish your movie and get back to school,” she tells her son with a goodbye kiss, oblivious to the fact the he and Dylan are about to go on their rampage.

Storiale takes us into the library as Seth, Sarah, and Crystal (Morgan Roberts, Stephanie Meredith Weyant, and Stacy Allen, all three doing fine, committed work) hear the first shots, believing that it’s nothing to worry about.  We see their teacher (a terrified and intense Bennett) making the phone call to 911 that Mrs. Shoels has spoken about previously, repeatedly telling the kids to stay under the tables as sounds of gunfire intensify. We see Kevin (a passionate Justin Schwan) and Mrs. Kritch bringing in wounded Coach Sanders (Eddie Pratt), knowing that it is too late to save him.

Storiale has made the wise decision to show only one or two of the actual killings.  Any more would have been unbearable.  But he does take us to the very end, to the moment of Dylan’s suicide, and then Eric’s.

The Columbine Project makes no attempt to excuse Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold for their actions, but it does help us understand, or at least gets us thinking about the possible reasons for two boys from “good” families to turn into monsters.

The mind boggles at the amount of research which went into The Columbine Project, the passion and commitment of the cast during its eight weeks of rehearsals, and the teamwork which forms part of every performance.  Scene changes are frequent, with stage manager Tristyn Curtiss and her crew of actors making relatively quick set changes in pitch blackness as police radio tracks the progress of the attacks.  Lighting, set, and costume designs by Brent Logan, Pavey, and Curtiss are simple but very effective, placing the focus firmly on the actors and the performances.  Cory Price deserves snaps for his work in the sound and lighting booth.  Gabe Lopez and Pavey wrote the touching original song, “13 Tears,” performed so beautifully by Michael.

The Columbine Project runs nearly three hours, but as one audience member remarked at Saturday’s Q & A with the cast, time passes swiftly indeed.  Cuts could doubtless be made, yet they would mean excising essential characters, information, and insight.  Be prepared to be at the Avery Schreber till 11:00, but be equally prepared for not a moment of boredom. Do not let the subject matter scare you away. The Columbine Project is set to close on May 16. See it now while you can. It deserves to be seen.

The Avery Schreiber Theatre, 11050 Magnolia Blvd., North Hollywood. 

–Steven Stanley
April 25, 2009

Comments are closed.