Watching Recoil — a new play about gun violence from the University of Pittsburgh Theatre Arts Department — got me thinking about how artists have addressed that topic over the past few decades. Specifically, I remembered Elephant, Gus Van Sant’s hyper-realistic fictional retelling of the Columbine school shooting, and how uncomfortable it made me. The film was supposed to be disturbing, but it wasn’t only the violence. There’s just something gross about dramatizing a school shooting that left me desperate for a shower and wondering what exactly the film was trying to accomplish. Did Van Sant think the horror of Columbine eluded the general public? Does it really need underlining?
Recoil left me feeling similarly ambivalent and anxious. The 90-minute drama, directed by Cynthia Croot, and conceived by Croot and the students of Pitt’s Theatre Arts Department, consists of loosely threaded vignettes about gun violence. The majority of them address mass shootings, but ties between domestic violence and gun violence are also looped in. The ensemble of 13 — all engaging, likable and deeply earnest — rotate from character to character and occasionally address the audience directly. There’s not much of a set to speak of, which make the transitions between scenes a little easier on the imagination. Projections behind the performers chip in with context blurbs and some set dressing, as during the portrayal of the shooting at The Dark Knight Rises screening in 2012.
The scenes of the mass shootings were the toughest to watch, for a number of reasons. On one hand, it’s eerie. Pitt is my alma mater and watching these students perform these scenes — in the Cathedral of Learning, no less — reminded me of being that age at this school as these shootings became more common. I remember watching the Virginia Tech shooting play out on cable news from my apartment on Atwood Street, where, coincidentally, I was later held up at gunpoint. OK, sorry, this is clearly not about my baggage, but still, it brought back a lot. I can’t imagine what it’s like to be a student now and to have grown up in this reality. The empathy was real. I liked these performers so much, and the line between performer and character was deliberately and consistently blurred.
But other aspects made it hard to watch simply because it was clumsy. The portrayal of the Pulse nightclub shooting included two young men pretending to snort cocaine in a bathroom before the shooting started. The production was dotted with similarly what-the-what decisions that made it tough to focus on the more empathetic aspects of the performance. And even the base decision to stage a montage of mass shootings (with which the audience is surely familiar) struck an ugly chord for me.
However, the effort of all 13 performers carries Recoil away from its awkward missteps. The earnestness, the vulnerability and the fear all add up to something uncomfortable, but it’s clearly a discomfort with a purpose.