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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Introducing The Directors Of Pint Sized IV! (Part One)

Pint Sized Plays IV is back tonight for it’s third performance! This year our excellent line up of writers is supported by an equitably awesome line up of directors, so we thought we’d take a moment to introduce some of them and find out more about who they are, what they’re looking forward to, and how they brought so much magic to this year’s festival.

Tell the world who you are in 100 words or less.

Charles Lewis III: I’m one of those rare “San Francisco natives” you’ve heard about in folk tales. The combustible combination of Melvin van Peebles, Cyclops from X-Men, and a touch of Isadora Duncan for good measure. I love the machine gun-like clatter of my typewriter. I don’t drink coffee, so I’m considered weird… in San Francisco. I still buy all of my albums on CD. Bit of a tech geek. I love celluloid. Shakespeare made me want to act, direct, write, and bequeath “my second-best bed” to an ex after I die.

Meg O’Connor: By night, I am a playwright and improviser who occasionally directs and acts. By day, I am marketing and client-relations extraordinaire for an immigration law firm.

Adam Sussman: East Coast refugee from Boston enjoying the long-haired devil-may-care atmosphere of the Bay. I’m a director, writer, dramaturge and occasional performer who recently left a decade long career in community health/harm reduction to focus on theater. I work with Ragged Wing Ensemble in Oakland and produce work through my company “Parker Street Odditorium.” Like us on the Facebook!

Adam Sussman: Devil May Care

Adam Sussman: Devil May Care

How did you get involved with Theater Pub, or if you’re a returning director, why did you come back?

Charles Lewis III: Way back in January 2010 I was in a production of William Inge’s Bus Stop at the Altarena Playhouse. My co-star lovely and talented actress named Xanadu Bruggers. When the production ended she asked all of us in the cast to come see her in an “anti-Valentine’s Day show” taking place at a café in The City. I was hesitant as I had some bad memories of performances in bars and cafés, but I still went to see SF TheaterPub’s second-ever show: A Valentine’s Day Post-Mortem. I went back the next month and that summer I was in their multi-part Sophocles adaptation The Theban Chronicles. That Autumn I was in their Oscar Wilde and HP Lovecraft show and in December I both performed in and co-wrote their first Christmas show. And I’ve been a regular attendee ever since.

Adam Sussman: Stuart (Bousel) asked me, and after reading through the great scripts and being sweet-talked by the puckish Neil Higgins, how could I say no?

Meg O’Connor: I have known the artistic directors since they were dreaming Theater Pub up, and first directed with them for The Theban Chronicles. I have directed in every Pint Sized (and produced the very first). I guess you could say I’m addicted (but I can quit whenever I want).

Meg O'Connor Can't Quit You... Or Can She?

Meg O’Connor Can’t Quit You… Or Can She?

What’s been the most exciting part of this process?

Meg O’Connor: Reading the scripts for the first time, and getting a sense of the vibe of this year’s festival is my favorite part. And getting to see each script realized is really rewarding.

Adam Sussman: Being able to see the piece come to life form page to stage. Typically this is a cop-out answer, but “Mark +/-” is so complicated that the script is literally in spreadsheet form since there’s so much overlapping dialogue and precision timing. So the metamorphosis from text to performance in this case had an extra element of difficulty and therefore excitement.

Charles Lewis III: No matter how sure you are about a production during rehearsal, there is always a way to be blind-sided by the audience. Being a director for one script (Sang Kim’s The Apotheosis of Grandma Shimkin) and actor in another (Megan Cohen’s The Last Beer in the World), it’s been trippy to hear the audience give a slight chuckle to one thing, but erupt with laughter at another.

What’s been the most troublesome?

Adam Sussman: I wanted a very specific set of gestures that all three Marks shared, but these gestures are only interesting if they are nearly identical rather than merely similar. So there was one rehearsal where I had to play “gesture cop,” calling out even small discrepancies from the agreed upon gestural choreography.

Charles Lewis III: I’ll just say that the recent BART strike made for a… unique experience in travelling to and from rehearsals.

Meg O’Connor: Rob Ready. What a diva.

Would you say putting together a show for Pint Sized is more skin of your teeth or seat of your pants and why?

Charles Lewis III: Apotheosis was definitely the latter. We had a very short turnaround from my coming on as director to the first performance. We only locked down the cast about a week before opening. Given the logistics and technical aspects of the piece – two actors who are seated through most of it, no major lighting cues – you might think it wouldn’t be all that much trouble. But when your first question to a potential actor is “Can you learn eleven pages in a week?” and you have only two rehearsals to get the verbal rhythm down, pick costumes, and more, then you realise it’s crunch time.
I just told myself that we were working with the same timetable as the average SNL episode, except our best writers aren’t talked about in past tense. I’m both pleasantly amazed by what everyone put together in such a short amount of time.

Adam Sussman: Seat of pants. Little time and no resources is always an exciting place to start with a theater piece. Skin of your teeth implies a close call, a bad mindset to begin a process with.

Meg O’Connor: Seat of your pants. Lots of last minute changes, lots of rolling with the punches. I’m lucky my cast were such bad-ass pros.

What’s next for you?

Adam Sussman: I’m directing (and appearing in) a beautiful piece for Fool’s Fury Factory Parts Festival written by Addie Ulrey. In the fall I’ll be directing a site specific ensemble piece written by Anthony Clarvoe for Ragged Wing Ensemble.

Meg O’Connor: I, intentionally, have very little going on until November – which is awesome. Two of my short plays (The Helmet and The Shield) will be featured in the Olympians Festival (http://www.sfolympians.com/) and I’m also getting hitched this November – eek! Also, my improv team, Chinese Ballroom, is included in the SF Improv Fest this year, the evening of Sept. 18th.

Charles Lewis III: Acting-wise, I’m pondering a couple offers and just accepted my first role for 2014. Writing-wise, my own blog (TheThinkingMansIdiot.wordpress.com) is up and running again. I’m also putting together some long-in-development scripts. And I plan on taking part in the 31 Plays in 31 Project this August. Directing-wise, I’ll once again be a writer and director for The SF Olympians Festival. Good stuff comin’ up.

What are you looking forward to in the larger Bay Area theater scene?

Charles Lewis III: “Transition” seems to be the word du jour and I can see why – it seems that everyone is making changes (hopefully for the best). I’m about to make one that’s been coming for some time. I think it’ll be beneficial to my theatre work in the long run and I’m looking towards the future with cautious optimism.

Charles Lewis III: Epitome of Optimistic

Charles Lewis III: Epitome of Optimistic

Meg O’Connor: No Man’s Land at Berkley Rep…mainly because I have a lady-boner for Ian McKellen AND Patrick Stewart.

Adam Sussman: So many things. I’m looking forward to seeing the other work at the Factory Parts festival including new pieces by Fool’s Fury, Joan Howard, Rapid Descent and Elizabeth Spreen. My good friend Nathaniel Justiniano is throwing an amazing benefit called “Cure Canada” for his fantastic group, Naked Empire Bouffon Company with a helluva line-up of performers, I’m also hoping he’ll do a homecoming production of his ingenious piece You Killed Hamlet or Guilty Creatures Sitting at a Play which has been touring Canada this summer. I’m excited to see Rebecca Longworth’s O Best Beloved at the Fringe this year, Bonnie and Clyde at Shotgun and Performing the Diaspora at Counterpulse.

Who in the Bay Area theater scene would you just love a chance to work with next?

Adam Sussman: Shotgun Theater, I’ve been lucky enough to have Artistic Director Patrick Dooley as a mentor through the TBA Atlas Program. I really love the work Shotgun does and how smart they are about building audiences while taking big artistic risks.

Meg O’Connor: I’m pretty excited about PianoFight’s new space and I get the sense that is going to be a fun group and space to work with.

Charles Lewis III: Too many to name. I wouldn’t mind if they answered with my name to the same question (hint, hint). TheaterPub has been a wonderful networking tool for all who attend; point in fact, it’s a contributing factor to my aforementioned transition. No matter what incarnation TheaterPub takes after this, I value the relationships I’ve made here and look forward to continuing them for some time to come.

What’s your favorite thing to order at the Cafe Royale?

Meg O’Connor: You’ll typically find me with a Boont Amber Ale in my hand, but I’ve been having a fling on the side with Hitachino Nest White Ale.

Adam Sussman: Duvel.

Charles Lewis III: Red Stripe. Crispin. Pilsner. Stella, back in the early days. Whatever glass of wine I’ve bought for Cody (Rishell) in the past. In fact, whatever drinks I’ve bought for folks at the Royale. ‘Cause in the end, the drink isn’t nearly as important as raising your glass in a toast with great people.

Don’t miss Pint Sized Plays IV, playing tonight and two more times this month: July 29 and 30, always at 8 PM, only at the Cafe Royale! The show is free and no reservations are necessary, but we encourage you to get there early because we will be full!