Working Title: Staging Legend And Shooting Myth In Bonnie & Clyde

So, in our continuous effort to stimulate our readers minds in different ways, we’re giving a new semi-monthly column a try here. Will Leschber’s goal will be to take a play that is currently happening in the Bay Area theater scene and relate it to a film that has similar subject matter, analyzing both to see how they accomplish telling their stories in different or similar ways. It’s super esoteric, we know, but we think it could be an interesting ride. Luckily, the Bay Area is currently home to the perfect production to start us off with. 

Recently, I had the pleasure to see The Shotgun Player’s production of Bonnie and Clyde. It’s a challenge to take on any subject which general audiences feel they are readily familiar with. The goal is to bring something new to these characters. Any retelling of the tale has to also contend with the influential 1967 film of the same name, which is reputed as one of the 100 best films of all time according to the American Film Institute. Luckily, the stage production directed by Mark Jackson is up to the task. Both the film and play ultimately succeed because they twist the myth created around these two historic outlaws and leave us with a picture of two individual people instead of merely the outlines of an American legend.

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Structurally, the play expands outward from a single night as our two title characters are holed up in a barn waiting out a warm Texas night. Flashing forward and backward in time the playwright, Adam Peck, fills in the explosive history and ominous future to give us a rounded look at Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow. As the play begins, the two address the audience in unison monologue and declare that the ordinary life is not one made for them. They are made to burn a brighter light. Joe Estlack (Clyde) and Megan Trout (Bonnie), who deftly play our leads, recite these words as the stage-front footlights flood the actors in plain white light. This bare illumination casts distinct shadows on the barn wall behind. These shadows simultaneously hang over them like foreboding destiny and also our mythic expectations for these historic figures. Light change. A projection of Depression era video fills the back barn wall. Our characters begin concurrent individual dance routines that give the impression of the time period (Charleston, Jitterbug, Lindy Hop, etc.) and also their mundane lives before meeting each other (get up, brush teeth, go to work, go home, repeat). Within the first five minutes, we get a sense of who these characters are, the myth they will become and a heightened stylistic sense of setting.

The film introduces itself economically as well. Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde opens with slide show of 1930’s era pictures inserted between the cast credits. The font begins bright white and then fades to deep red. The slide show ends with scene setting photos of our stars Faye Dunnaway as Bonnie Parker and Warren Beatty as Clyde Barrow. The picture dissolves to a close up of Dunnaway’s red lips. Then to the mirror. She’s in her bedroom. She’s also not yet dressed for the day. Dunnaway flops on her bed and beats against the bars at the foot of her bed in desperate boredom. She’s already in a prison of normalcy. This was not the prison she was made for.

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She comes to the window and sees a young Clyde Barrow looking at her mother’s car out front. She calls out. She has yet to clothe. “Hey Boy! What ch’you doin’ with my momma’s car? …wait there!” We see Dunnaway in silhouette as she rushes down the stairs covering her naked body as she flies to meet this handsome stranger. Within the first five minutes the images of sexuality and crime already are mixing. Who knows how the true to life story unfolded, but in the film Bonnie and Clyde only learn each others names and exchange pleased-to-meet-you’s after they’ve robbed a general store and hotwired a getaway vehicle. It’s a fitting scene to match the idealized fable that the American culture has built around this couple.

These American bandits are set up as depression era Robin Hood figures. They treat the common man like equals and the faceless law officers like ruthless overlords who deserve to be stolen from. That fairytale is all well and good, but to care about these two characters we need to see more of their humanity. The play handles this by showing quieter moments between our two leads. Clyde and Bonnie share a pitiful feast of sardines and left over beans. They relate to each other and show the familiarity of a couple that needs each other. Bonnie reads the paper listing their exploits. Clyde completes the action that she relates by performing the robbery scene.

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The scene is fun, a little bit dangerous and always intimate. The tone shifts and Bonnie begins to lament the newspaper’s mention of a wife and children who were bereaved by the actions of our beloved outlaws. The choices of Bonnie and Clyde left this family fatherless. This flipside of glamorous crime does not go unseen.

To give further depth to Bonnie, the playwright has her tell us in an aside that as a child she wanted to be famous, a movie star maybe. Stage projections fill the back wall. Multiple layered projections are intermittently shot upon the light hued barn. In this instance, one layer illuminating the wooded siding with movie marquis or red carpet scenes and another projected image brightens the support beams with glittering Broadway lights. Together they created an entire wall covered by projection but each distinct within their area. This was a wonderful visual metaphor for our two lovers. She is forever infamous. But is this the fame she wanted?

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Likewise, she wishes to be desired by Clyde. This is obviously the case yet both the play and the film flirt with Clyde’s impotency. On stage we have a sex scene that Clyde ends before it concludes. “I ain’t no lover-boy,” Warren Beauty says he shuts down Bonnie’s advances for sex after stealing their first car. Even his bank robbery attempts speak to his inability to perform. The first bank they rob together has no money in it due to its closure in the wake of the depression. Only near the film’s end, as Bonnie cements their place in American mythic history with her prophetic poem “The Ballad of Bonnie and Clyde”, does Clyde consummate their relationship. The real poem was entitled “The Trails End”, but its symbol remains the same. To Clyde it represents immortality. This is what pushes him over the sexual precipice. After seeing the poem in the newspaper Clyde says, “You know what you done there? You told my whole story. When I met you I said I’d make you into somebody. And that’s what you just done for me. You made me into someone they are gonna remember.” They kiss. The wind kicks up, they embrace and two pieces of newspaper with their names emblazoned across the headlines blow away into the wind. They dance and twirl and are lost to the winds down the plain.

You’ve read the story of Jesse James
of how he lived and died.
If you’re still in need;
of something to read,
here’s the story of Bonnie and Clyde.

Some day they’ll go down together
they’ll bury them side by side.
To few it’ll be grief,
to the law a relief
but it’s death for Bonnie and Clyde.

Both the stage production and feature film juxtapose the desirable life of the infamous outlaw who lives large and loves hard with the real individuals who can’t sexually perform and succumb to fear in dangerous situations or feel guilt for commuting crimes past their intentions.

The mediums of film and theatre have achieved the ends of introducing our central characters and humanizing them in similar ways thus far. Yet they differ in their unique presentation of the stories climax. The play uses the movement tool of dance interludes in a myriad of ways throughout the play. A good fourth of the play is performed in dance. It is used to set the time period, show the characters wooing, hint at the action of robbery and paint a picture of their relationship. The pinnacle of the play flows out in an extended stylistic interpretive dance scene. Stark lighting and winding movement take the stage. The end is upon Bonnie and Clyde. Their arms sweep, then twist down and around on one another. They fall and are caught by one another. Violent shifts in form evoke the final scene of their death and yet also their entire entwined love affair. These methods are especially effective on the stage and wouldn’t be as potent elsewhere.

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The event on film is equally effective but relayed with glaring difference. The filmmakers hold this scene until the absolute last minute. Our outlaws are making a slow getaway from unassuming police men just to put distance between them. A slow building tension rises, as a trap is being set. Our doomed lovers stop to help someone with a flat tire on an old dusty back road. The motion of the scene escalates to a crescendo through the editing. The bushes shake with law officers. Birds burst out of the bushes with crash. Clyde realizes they are trapped. He begins to run to back her. Quick cut to Clyde. Quick cut to Bonnie. Again. Back. Forth. Close up on Clyde . Close up on Bonnie. The sound spikes and authoritative tommy-gun shots riddle the scene. From all this quick cutting movements our lovers are then thrown into slow motion as bullets seethe through their car, their clothes, their last breath and broken bodies. Everything comes to a halt and our story winds to its sad end. The closing shot shows the gang of police officers looking down through bullet holes and broken glass and reflections from the windshield of this scene. The slow motion lends a kind of poetry to their death but the harsh realistic jerk of violence allows us a view of how ugly their lives could be. This dual image, this spinning chaos of romance and violence is what creates the pedestal upon which sit our dear Bonnie and Clyde.

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In the end the two related mediums of film and theatre serve the story of Bonnie and Clyde well. Both allow us to see a multitude of sides to what could have been two-dimensional historical cutouts. The success of both reminds me of an aspiration of filmmaker Werner Herzog. His goal when making film is to reach an ecstatic truth. In his words, “There are deeper strata of truth in cinema, and there is such a thing as poetic, ecstatic truth. It is mysterious and elusive, and can be reached only through fabrication and imagination and stylization.” These ecstatic truths can be achieved at equal success in the realm of theatre and the stratum of cinema. Both the production by Shotgun Players and the 1967 film use the tools within their medium to achieve a layer of verity that defies reality and yet reveals more underlying truth.

Will will be back later this month with a different play and a different movie. Let us know what you think!

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