Phoenix’s Stray Cat Theatre is at it again, putting cutting-edge shows on stage affordably but with exceptional quality. Their current show, columbinus, is a haunting docudrama that blends The Laramie Project with elements of The Real World.
Credit: John Groseclose
Without seeming glib, columbinus begins simply, bringing together 8 high school students for a typical day of classes, gossip, lunch, and turmoil. Each cast member walks out on stage, strips down to their underwear, and then goes to sleep, only to then start their day all over, putting on the familiar clothing of the archetypes they represent: the jock, the popular girl, the religious girl, the prep, the freak, the nerd, etc. For the next hour, these unnamed archetypes circle each other like sharks, preying on the weaker and butting chests with the stronger.
Although it has bearing on the second half of the show, the way columbins begins was too vague for me. I hope I don’t seem jaded, but the play seemed to state the obvious (that everyone in high school has life-threatening problems/fears/concerns), and then it stated it over and over again. This is really a problem of scripting rather than performance. The strength in the opening was the poetically-crafted dialogue, acting as a sort of Greek chorus of voices who pop and sizzle individually, then snap together percussively.
The actors were all exceptionally made over into teenagers, both looking and acting like crazed hormonally-charged weirdoes. I especially liked “the bad girl,” whose anger was always barely contained–but likewise her vulnerability.
Credit: John Groseclose
By the end of the first act, two of the archetypes morph seamlessly in Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, the Columbine killers. It’s a powerful moment, one that asks the audience to consider just how easily any of these students could have snapped and become like them; it asks the audience to consider our own part in fostering violence and intolerance.
The second half of the show is much, much stronger. We watch Harris and Klebold plot, prepare, and then attack their school. The playwright smartly backs out of this sequence, letting historical documents and survivor testimony stand in for crafted dialogue. Survivors describe their terror blankly, focusing events more than feelings. We hear of heads exploding, legs torn to shreds by gunfire, the way a body feels as it stops breathing. We watch our friends die, we play dead, we beg, we profess our belief in God, we are shot.
It’s an almost indescribable sequence, staged flawlessly by Ron May and his cast. The rhythm, the lighting, the staging, the sound effects, and the performances are all top-notch, lacking both irony and pathos. The real strengh of columbinus is its resistance of editorial, putting before us the evidence, then asking us who we are.