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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: StageKids’ ‘columbinus’ bold, dynamic, special

The theater goes where few dare with high school students.

STURGEON BAY, Wis. (WFRV) – The guy from the tavern next to Third Avenue Playhouse drifts over and asks, “Intermission?”

He’s come out for a smoke. I’m out stretching my legs with my “smoke” – candy.

“Yeah.”

“I lived next to it,” the guy says, nodding to the title on the marquee.

The play is “columbinus,” and the guy means either next to Littleton, Colorado, or next to Columbine High School.

The guy goes on. “How many? Fifteen?”

“Thirteen,” I say, not thinking that the guy has included the two killers. I find out later there’s a bit in the play about how many died at Columbine and whether the killers deserve counting.

The guy lights a cigarette. I shift my chocolate-coated peanut in a cheek and say, “They use every word in the vocabulary.”

“There’s swearing?”

The guy seems surprised.

“Oh yeah. And all kinds of sexual references.”

The guy skips over that and tells me details about the two killers, their neighborhoods, their parents, the make of car one killer drove, their arsenal, the reports on TV – the general aura of awful awe. He seems gripped by the recollection. Eventually, after the guy has dispensed all he can about the meaningful event in his life, I say, “Gotta get back.”

The guy parts with, “Fifteen years ago Sunday.” He remembers the anniversary to the day of the Columbine shootings.

To the intermission point of the play, attention is on the portrayal of individual characters as they go through a day in a fictional town. They’re high school kids. Each is distinct. In a scene called “Alone,” each teenager delves into the deepest, darkest depth of his or her soul that screams back at him or her. A foible. One character has zits he picks. Perfect examines her midriff with disapproval, then forces herself to throw up. AP feverishly studies a thick SAT preparatory book, hits a stone wall and rips out a page in frustrated anger. Rebel, the gothic girl, cuts on one arm, then cuts on the other, weeping with each slice. Jock, the athlete, assesses himself in the mirror, flexes a muscle and scowls, then hits the floor for frenetic pushups. Everyone has at least one source of unhappiness. Pain.

By intermission, “columbinus” is an unrelenting series of punch-to-the-gut impressions of adolescent life. Some of the characters’ alter egos are especially played out. In meetings with guidance counselors, Loner and Freak say one thing to the counselor in normal light, and then, in red lighting, each viciously assaults the counselor with foul language and teeth-bared commentary. In another scene with a girl he’s just kissed, Freak becomes another personality and, in his imagination, spews his animal/carnal wishes.

***

Creative: Playwrights – Stephen Karam and P.J. Paparelli leading others; director – Robert Boles; lighting design – James Valcq; stage management, sound and projection design – Ryan Patrick Shaw.

Cast: Josh Augustson, Sturgeon Bay High School; Jacob Barbercheck, Sevastopol; Jemma Benton, Sevastopol; Dominic DiCarlo, Sevastopol; Sophia Friedenfels, Gibraltar; Michaela Kraft, Southern Door; Connor McClelland, Southern Door; Isaiah Spetz, Sevastopol; Samantha Spohn, Sevastopol; Hadley Takashi, Gibraltar; and Dylan Thornton, Sevastopol.

***

By intermission, “columbinus” has held back little. Then comes Act II. Death stalks the Columbine High library as two killers, out of their heads with blood lust, mercilessly shoot students and then complete their mutant pact with suicide. The killings are described by witnesses. A recording of the 911 call from the teacher named Patty is heard. In the scene, “Aftermath,” a father reflects on his wanting to see the body of his daughter prior to the autopsy. “She looked fine, considering.” He speaks of kissing his dead daughter’s toes.

The production (5 stars out of 5) is an onslaught of emotions and images. Among all the performances I’ve seen, it’s right up there in the category of Special.

Here are a few things that set it apart:

This production is performed by high school students. However, the script is such that a high school drama department would be vilified for putting such words and actions and behaviors and bluntness into the mouths and personages of their students. So much in the script is explosive, beyond the maniacal mass-killer duo. Third Avenue Playhouse has the apparatus to put on “columbinus” through its StageKids Theatre arm. The cast is drawn from four Door County high schools, with parents signing off on what their son or daughter is involved in. Robert Boles, director and Third Avenue Playhouse co-artistic director, knew what he was getting into from directing a previous production with college students at a university in Connecticut. To each performance at Third Avenue Playhouse, Robert Boles has invited community leaders to take part in a post-performance discussion/conversation/question session. Often for such “talkbacks,” much of the audience bolts for the door. On opening night Friday, the audience stayed to question and ponder. Words and phrases on the production included “mesmerized,” “blown away” and, for the use of a high school-age cast, “authentic.”

Performances all around bristle with meaning. The contingent is purpose driven and focused in the material that at times is stone cold hearted. In scarifying ways, Dominic DiCarlo and Isaiah Spetz get under the skin of killers Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris. The high school sophomore (Dominic DiCarlo) and high school freshman (Isaiah Spetz) are electrifying. Like a dam bursting, insane rage gushes from their characters.

It takes a certain amount of guts to take in a performance of “columbinus.” Action does lead to a worst-case scenario. “Unnerving” and “harrowing” come to mind. But it is an amazing experience. The guy from the tavern would be stunned.

There are three more performances through Sunday, April 27. Info: www.thirdavenueplayhouse.com.

VENUE: The 250-seat playhouse dates to 1950, when it opened at 239 South Third Avenue as a movie house, the Donna Theatre. That theater seated 500. It was of the late Art Moderne style, with rounded, “streamlined” geometrics. The Dec. 9, 1950, issue of Boxoffice Magazine announced the recent opening of the Donna Theatre and listed the architect as Urban F. Peacock of Milwaukee. Opening night fare included the film “King Solomon’s Mines” and a marionette show. The article says, “The theater is named after Mrs. Donna Borchert, owner of the Donna and the older Door Theatre here.” A March 1952 issue of Boxoffice Magazine details the theater, noting its auditorium includes murals of “dramatic likenesses of operatic characters such as the knight, king, jester, pianist and director.” Today, the walls are ripples of acoustical material in blocks of pastels, with a section of red. The Donna was operated by the same family for decades.

In the late 1990s, a group of people from the Sturgeon Bay arts, business and civic communities rallied to preserve the shuttered Donna by converting it into an arts center for live performances. Since the fall 2000, the building has housed Third Avenue Playhouse. The first presentation was American Folklore Theatre’s production of “Guys on Ice.”

You may email me at warren.gerds@wearegreenbay.com. Watch for my on-air features on WFRV between 6 and 8 a.m. Sundays.

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