Thursday, October 03, 2013

Bonnie and Clyde

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.


Civic Center said...

Bonnie and Clyde, the movie, is when I first got a cultural shot straight into the heart at age 13, and I'm still not quite over it. You're right that its aesthesticized violence was a horrific harbinger of things to come, but it only makes the movie that much more prescient and potent. I can't imagine seeing another version of the tale that would be half as interesting.

Curtis Faville said...

I won't see the stage version that is the immediate impetus for your essay here, which is really about Arthur Penn's version.

I recall clearly my first viewing of Bonnie and Clyde. My college roommate Dan and I went to see it--we were juniors at Berkeley, but we were very different people, Dan being pre-med, I an English major. We saw it through separate eyes, but both agreed afterward that it seemed very much to be a work of its time, emphasizing the counterculture's rejection of economic and cultural conditions, attempting to make romantic heroes out of criminal types. Both Beatty and Dunaway seemed like familiar quantities at the time (though I may be misremembering here, since Dunaway was just leaving the starting-blocks; of greater interest and significance were the performances of Hackman and Estelle Parsons, the hick side-kicks (both of whose careers took off after this breakthrough). When Hackman and Beatty had scenes together, there was a spontaneity and freshness that were new and exciting.

I think in retrospect, that the film's overwhelming violence was probable an harbinger of later events, but we couldn't have known that then. The counterculture was an omnipresent reality in Berkeley in those days, as later developments would prove.

Over the years, I've tended to demote Penn's film somewhat, though its importance at the time is undeniable. The first point to remember is the decision to make the film at all, rather than the way in which it was portrayed. I have always disliked slow-mo shots of shootings, which this film featured. Reference Brian De Palma's endless train station stairway homage to Eisenstein in The Untouchables (1987), a much better film, that scene aside, in almost every sense, than the earlier effort by Penn.

Charles Shere said...

I'm sorry if I've left the impression I was "really" writing about Arthur Penn's movie, which is the subject of only one paragraph in my original post. No, I've been musing on the subject of the cultural myth around Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, as it is represented by Adam Peck's play seen last week, as it may have evolved from its own time in the early 1930s, as it may have looked to my parents who were their contemporaries, and — though only by suggestion, in my final paragraph — as it may have renewed relevance today.

I think of this blog as a notebook, not an anthology of essays. Perhaps I should have called it Eastside Meditations rather than The Eastside View: but pretentiousness comes too readily here as it is.

I'm struck, though, by your comment "the film's overwhelming violence was probable an harbinger of later events, but we couldn't have known that then." That was my concern at the time, and we all
should have known it then.

Curtis Faville said...

Not sure what your concern about "pretentiousness" relates to.

Are you having second thoughts about blogging? If so, don't.

Blogging can be about anything you want it to be. It's a new hybrid form, strictly neither editorial, nor essay, nor opinion piece, nor humorous anecdote, nor autobiographical note, but all of these and everything else beside. Your food pieces strike me as an entirely new genre; did such a thing exist in the world before it, was there ever a place where it could have existed? Clearly not.

With respect to violence in media, I think there's overwhelming evidence that the violence we now see in popular music, the movies, and elsewhere, has created a context of violence that we can see everywhere we turn: in public, on the roads and highways, even in the way we carry out business and policy. What is the current Tea Party attempting, if not a de-facto violent tactic to try to get its way?