|Bonnie and Clyde. By Adam Peck, directed by Mark Jackson. Berkeley: Shotgun Players; seen September 25, 2013.|
Eastside Road, October 3, 2013—
A quick look at the calendar shows sixteen plays seen so far this year (and three operas), and recently I've been complaining a lot about what we've seen. I should make it clear, once again, that I post these notes not as serious critical reviews, merely as personal opinions. For years I worked as a critic on the staff of the Oakland Tribune, mostly on art and (concert) music but occasionally also covering theater. During that time I felt strongly that a part of a newspaper critic's responsibility is to suspend his own likes and dislikes.
I always liked Joseph Kerman's definition of criticism: "[T]he study of the meaning and the value of art works." (Contemplating Music: challenges to musicology, Harvard University Press, 1986). The newspaper employed me to do just that, but — I felt — to do it from a neutral perspective. My responses; my brain; the publisher's voice. I was paid, pretty well I thought; and I was provided with entrance to theaters, concert halls, museums; and even with entry to conversations with artists and performers I would normally never be able to meet as a private individual. The least I could do in return was to suppress my own ego and tastes, as much as possible while retaining presence.
But The Eastside View is not a newspaper: it's a personal blog, expressing my own viewpoint from here on Eastside Road, where I can read and write among my books and scores, journals and files — and, through the Internet, plenty of reference when I want it. And of course there's another matter: I'm pushing eighty; there's less time to waste; I need do and think and write only as I choose.
All that said — and it's been a lengthy and perhaps self-indulgent precede — what about last week's theater? Bonnie and Clyde, by Adam Peck, was a one-act, 90-minute scene for two actors, Megan Trout and Joe Estlack, cutting between intimate conversation between them and flashbacks and -forwards, dramatically isolated with light and sound, providing the context for the scene.
Is there anyone who doesn't know the story of Bonnie and Clyde, the small-town bank robbers who shot their way through Texas and Arkansas in Arthur Penn's movie (1967) burned them into a second generation's consciousness, and must remain for many the nearly official account of their career. When that movie came out I participated in a panel-discussion review on KQED, with David Littlejohn, Tony Boucher, and someone else. (In those days KQED was happy to give fifteen or twenty minutes of prime time to such a discussion; what a time that was!)
It was my view then that the movie was unspeakably violent; that in fact it promoted violence as beauty, and that ultimately that would not be a good thing. I still feel the cult of violence has led the American vernacular culture into a thicket, and that there can't help but be a connection between the omnipresence of violence, and of its beauty and power, in games, television, film, books, and popular music, and the gun mania, mass shootings, remote assassinations, and road rage that are so present in American life.
But the story of Bonnie and Clyde is a potent one, underneath whatever stylistic treatment it receives. And if Penn's film distracted me from that story, with its big-screen beauty and graphic final shootout, Peck’s play, in Mark Jackson’s direction for Shotgun Players, returned me to it. I was given a corrected view of its historical specificity: I kept thinking that Bonnie and Clyde were of my father’s generation, that they lived and died within a few dozen miles of his childhood home. My parents, in their twenties, undoubtedly read of Bonnie and Clyde’s exploits in the newspapers, saw the no less graphic black-and-white photos of their corpses in their pages; perhaps saw footage in the newsreels.
(Facsimiles of contemporary newspaper coverage were posted on the lobby walls at Shotgun, further enhancing this contextualization of the story.)
I came to see the story of Bonnie and Clyde as parallel to another American legend of nearly the same time, also seen recently in a theatrical version: The Grapes of Wrath. Once again I was reminded of the communitarian value essential in theater. At its best, public drama, from the time of the Greeks, exists to present, to examine, perhaps even to explicate the workings of Nature and Society for an audience often denied, by the distractions and pressures of daily life, the luxury of their own private meditations on the human condition.
I write these sentences eight days after seeing the play, and express views that have developed since leaving the theater. The performance itself was arresting — no pun intended — both for the acting and the setting. Megan Trout’s Bonnie was certainly reminiscent of Faye Dunaway’s, but it was no impersonation of that performance: it had depth and detail of its own, a wistful quality within the hardened realism enforced not only by the immediate situation but by the nature of the time and place that formed her character.
Joe Estlack was at first sight less imposing as Clyde Barrow, too diffident and meticulous to suggest the rogue murderer, and secondary to the strength of Bonnie’s role as written in the script. In retrospect, though, his enactment has grown in my mind, offering a credible complexity, revealing the (possibly misplaced) idealism and sense of failed justice that provoked his actions.
Robert Broadfoot’s set design worked fine for me: a no-fourth-wall anonymous barn, its timbers perhaps too new, isolated in a countryside that could be anywhere, spacious enough for the couple to split into individuals, claustrophobic enough to isolate them from the society that formed them and that, by rejecting, they enrich with their myth.
Ultimately it's that mythic quality of the story of Bonnie and Clyde that Adam Peck's play summarizes, in its unique crosscuts of immediate present detail with glimpses of the months-long action of the saga. Peck's play manages to hew to Aristotle's three unities (action, time, place) while tapping outside elements necessary to his contextualization, and Jackson's direction realized that aspect of the play effectively in Berkeley's Ashby Avenue theater.
Trapped in their barn, Bonnie and Clyde live in the moment, aware it is among their last moments. To my parents that moment was the present; to me it is both theirs and ours, and the figurative, metaphorical meaning of that moment is powerful and relavent to the present.