Review: Topical and Significant COLUMBINUS at 1st Stage

By: Apr. 02, 2019
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Review: Topical and Significant COLUMBINUS at 1st Stage

To mark the 20th anniversary of the deadly shooting at Columbine High School, 1st Stage brings us a columbinus that, tragically, is as frightening, significant, and topical today as ever before.

In the two decades since the massacre at Columbine High in which 12 students, one teacher, and the two perpetrators died-the deadliest school shooting at the time-we have now experienced tragedies at Virginia Tech, Sandy Hook, Parkland, and more.

columbinus delves into the alienation, social pressure, intimidation, and rage of life in high schools. It does so mixing fact and fiction. The text by Stephen Karam and PJ Paparelli merges a first act comprised of fictionalized character studies that illuminate the challenges churning within modern high school and a second act that is raw documentary theatre drawing from diaries, home video, and discussions with parents, survivors, and community leaders in Littleton, Colorado, the site of the Columbine tragedy.

Review: Topical and Significant COLUMBINUS at 1st Stage
(l to r) Brett Cassidy, Alex Reeves, Thais Menendez, Rocky Nunzio, Joe Mucciolo, and Patrick Joy. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

The play is a true ensemble piece and co-directors Alex Levy and Juan Francisco Villa have assembled a strong and compelling cast: Jennie Bissell, Brett Cassidy, Patrick Joy, Thais Menendez, Joe Mucciolo, Rocky Nunzio, Jonathan Palmer, and Alex Reeves. The eight actors play teachers, parents, employers, counselors, community members, and, at the very crux of columbinus, they play high school students with all their flaws, vulnerabilities, confusion, and fury.

We know these students only by assigned characteristics: AP (a sweet and touching Brett Cassidy), Faith (Jennie Bissell brings heart to the character's confusion and fervor), Jock (played by Jonathan Del Palmer with a warmth and steady power), Perfect (a strong and charismatic Thais Menendez), Prep (Joe Mucciolo brings out the bully and the flimsy shell of cultivated popularity), Rebel (played with memorable depth by Alex Reeves), Loner (Patrick Joy), and Freak (Rocky Nunzio).

It is actors Joy and Nunzio who expertly evolve in the second act to directly portray the killers, Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold. In Act I we see how such an atrocity could happen, in Act II we see with horrifying precision how it did happen. Joy and Nunzio show us complicated, multifaceted people. Charm and lies, hurt and wrath, and finally their maniacal glee over their ghastly commitment to carry out their plan.

Review: Topical and Significant COLUMBINUS at 1st Stage
Patrick Joy. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

In many ways, the audience comes to the experience knowing and dreading what is to come in Act II. If twenty years have made the specifics of Columbine HS a little fuzzy, we know the basics too well from recent events. Act II moves rapidly, but gives us moments to grieve, to recoil, to bear witness through the words and actions based on the actual events in that library in Littleton.

While Act I is an interesting lens from which to view the darker elements of adolescence, and contains significant moments of connection and or stark alienation, in this specific production Act I suffered from slow pacing. Co-directors Alex Levy and Juan Francisco Villa relied on music to swap in for heavy emotional lifting especially in the scenes featuring Tori Amos' cover of "Smells Like Teen Spirit" and the Verve's "Bitter Sweet Symphony." The directors were compelled to use full arcs of the song which added unnecessary time after the point was made. Given the gifts of the actors and the poignancy of the script, there was no need to layer in additional borrowed pathos from the music, particularly with the audiences primed with a foreknowledge of the carnage to come in the second act.

Review: Topical and Significant COLUMBINUS at 1st Stage
Rocky Nunzio. Photo by Teresa Castracane.

The set, designed by Kathryn Kawecki, is stark, monochromatic, flexible, and highly functional. Doors, steps, platforms, and benches reconfigure and keep the action active and distinct. The lighting design by Conor Mulligan is especially memorable in Act II where bright flashes punctuate the fearful intensity as the killers' plan transpires. Robbie Hayes' projection design is an important and distinctive design element. Sound design by Kenny Neal layers the music of the late 90s and ambient sounds of a high school, rising and falling with the emotional intensity of the scenes. Kelsey Hunt's modern costume design reflects the distinct differences of the high schoolers.

1st Stage, with several Helen Hayes Awards under its belt already and 22 nominations in the upcoming awards, is a theatre with a growing reputation and ambitions. columbinus is a solid and significant exploration of the specific horror at Columbine High and the recurring and pervasive tragedy of gun violence.

Runtime: Approximately 2:45 hours including one 15-minute intermission

columbinus by Stephen Karam and PJ Paparelli runs through April 20 with performances Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Fridays at 8 pm, Saturdays at 2 pm and 8 pm, and Sundays at 2pm. 1st Stage is located at 1524 Spring Hill Road in McLean, VA on the second level of the Spring Hill Business Center. Captions and audio description will be offered for select performances as well as Community Conversations on aspects related to the production; check here for schedule information. Tickets can be purchased online at or by calling the 1st Stage box office at 703-854-1856.

Photos by Teresa Castracane.


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