The massacre at Columbine High School has been so intensively covered in the media -- minutely dissected when it first occurred, rehashed with every newly uncovered fragment of information and on every yearly anniversary -- that it's hard to figure out what remains to be said about it. So it's not clear to me why the LIDA Project chose to make a theater piece on Columbine. Furthermore, it's difficult to make representational art out of this kind of horror unless you create a straightforward documentary. Otherwise, approaching the event head-on doesn't work. You have to come at it obliquely -- fictionalizing or grabbing hold of something connected to it but outside of camera range, and then exploring this particle in depth. You can also use metaphor and symbol. Masks. Stylization. Puppets, even. Filmmaker Michael Moore had the right idea in Bowling for Columbine when he chose to attack the topic sideways, using his film to illuminate our culture's obsession with guns and blind indifference to poor children. A year or so ago, LIDA pulled off Manson Family Values by abstracting much of the violence and making the group interactions savagely funny. Bingo Boyz: Columbine is a mix of documentary information and oddly subdued experimental technique, and it doesn't work.
Director Robin Davies and his actors worked together for several months to create Bingo Boyz: Columbine through research and improvisation, but the result feels heavy-handed. Surely, every member of the audience had already reflected on the ideas and questions raised by the play. We'd considered the irony of the fact that such violence had been perpetrated by privileged kids in a rich suburban school. We had learned that the killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, suffered the usual teenage humiliations, were bullied by other students and sometimes rejected by girls. We'd also learned that they were essentially whiny, boring brats, limited in vocabulary and imagination, striking examples of the banality of evil. We already knew that high schools are often dysfunctional places. We'd heard all the arguments about gun control and the need for more prayer in schools -- though Columbine seems to have provided a singularly Christian environment. And we had wondered whether or not the killers' parents were culpable, and thought about the terrible pain they must have suffered.
There are a few moments when Bingo Boyz touches on something genuinely insightful or moving. The first scene provides a sense of how students felt hiding in locked rooms and closets or under tables while the shootings were going on. Like men in battle, these students endured long periods of irritation and boredom, punctuated by stark terror. Some needed to pee. One group got hungry and tried to thaw a package of frozen bagels. A teacher promised her charges that any T-shirts used to staunch bleeding would be returned to their owners washed and folded.
In another effective scene, Eric Harris talks to a friend about his plans to humiliate another student. The two of them are laughing, enjoying the thought of this boy's distress and discomfiture, but as Harris's plans become more and more extravagantly violent, his friend begins to draw away from him. When he has a similar discussion with Klebold, the latter catches his excitement and urges him on to wilder heights.
It's touching when actress Sue Rock describes seeing two broken bodies. Before the "other children" can see them, she insists, "You have to cover them up." We're also moved as we watch Klebold -- already dead -- listening silently as his parents weep.
The play is structured as a sequence of scenes featuring students, cops, reporters, parents, teachers and the killers themselves. The use of numerous perspectives is a deliberate strategy, but it also diffuses focus. There's no obvious through-line or forward momentum. Some scenes are thuddingly obvious; some seem irrelevant; many need pruning.
The emotional palette is pretty much limited to sorrow, anger and shock. The actors regularly work themselves into paroxysms of fear or grief, but they don't reveal the complexities and variations we see when people in real life suffer these emotions. My old acting teacher used to call this approach "acting an attitude." At best, pieces created through improvisation can be startlingly deep and original, as cast members mine their own emotional terrain. But this type of play can also be self-indulgent. Words matter, the craft of writing matters, and dramaturge Tami Canaday needed to bring shape and structure to the actors' discoveries.
Finally, the extended video footage of the September 11 attack on the World Trade Center struck me as both spurious and emotionally manipulative.
There are some good performances in Bingo Boyz, notably those of Brian Lewis as Harris and Mike Holzer, with his deceptively blank and innocent face, as Klebold. Sue Rock shines in several roles, as does Matthew Schultz, and Ashley Scott is all charm and coltish innocence as Cindy Stern.
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