“You and me
We’re in this together now
None of them can stop us now
We will make it through somehow
You and me
Even after everything
You’re the Queen and I’m the King
Nothing else means anything”
– Nine Inch Nails, “We’re in this Together”, The Fragile (1999)
A recurring theme in the story of outlaws is that time is running out. Even when they aren’t cast as the villains of their own story, the destiny of the outlaw is rarely a happy ending. After all, they are – as the very term implies – breaking the law; they have violated the contract with society at large and are expected to be held accountable. Even those who might be considered noble, if not simply right (Nat Turner, William Wallace, Joan of Arc, Saul of Tarsus) found themselves each meeting a grisly end in their respective folktales. Indeed, it seems that unless your name is “Robin Hood”, being an outlaw in popular culture means that your days are numbered.
I bring this up for two reasons: 1) a date with destiny is a recurring theme in Adam Peck’s Bonnie & Clyde, currently directed by Mark Jackson for Shotgun Players in Berkeley; and 2) because the production will end tomorrow night and I feel a bit late-to-the-game reviewing it now, having finally seen it last night. Peck, a Bristol-based playwright, sets his tale of the Depression-era outlaws in an unspecified time late in their infamy. Nevertheless, the ominous visions to which the audience is privy leave little doubt that the couple’s bullet-ridden fate is not far off. Clyde seems possessed of some precognitive power that allows him to see the final shooting in graphic detail.
But that’s the future. The “present” of the play proper finds our title characters (played by Joe Estlack and Megan Trout) holed up in a barn after having evaded police capture once again. Each has been shot – Clyde in the arm, Bonnie in the thigh – but you’d barely know if from the way the two move with such manic energy; if not for the bloody bandages over the wounds, you’d never know they were injured at all. We are told that cohorts Buck and Blanche Barrow have already been killed and jailed, respectively. They are shown to have very little at their immediate disposal: the clothes on their backs, a suitcase of “fancy clothes”, a collection of newspaper clippings, a food tin with one slice of ham and a handful of baked beans, and three guns with a limited number of bullets left.
Over the course of 80 minutes – which, judging from press materials, is supposed to be a single night, but is more likely a single 24-hour period – we watch the two laugh, eat, sleep, laugh, bicker, reminisce, plan for the future, and dance. We are shown who these two are with only fleeting glimpses of what they did. Peck’s intention seems to be that Bonnie and Clyde’s is a tragic story; that they could hardly be blamed for what they’ve done for they didn’t know better. As written by Peck, they come off less as two adults in their mid-20s and more as two children playing grown-ups. Indeed, Bonnie’s pet name for Clyde is “Daddy”, the two play hopscotch, and conversations between them seem more apt for a young brother and sister rather than lovers (their first kiss is accented by a projection of fireworks and an awkward sex scene comes off more as two children playing “Doctor”).
Though that may have been the wrong way to set up the chemistry between the two leads, but the actors work well with what they’ve been given. Estlack’s hulking frame and quick temper suggest and angry bear that would swat down a recurring nuisance. Trout, a veteran of the 11th Hour Ensemble, is feline in her approach, particularly the dance/movement sequences (choreographed by Kimberly Dooley): she’s much more comfortable than Estlack in such scenes and she often moves at a pace where he is hard-pressed to keep up. But in the “normal” scenes, the two complement one another well; often suggesting with body language a history barely scratched by the script.
Peck wisely decides not to make his dialogue overly-expository – lovers and colleagues would never explain to each other what they already know – but there isn’t a great deal of explanation as to what they’ve done, save for a scene where Bonnie reads aloud from a newspaper. Peck seems to have written the play expecting the audience to have a thorough knowledge of two and therefore doesn’t bother to elaborate. Even the newspaper scene lacks the appropriate weight as Clyde playfully acts out what the paper has written. He briefly expresses remorse at the lives lost, but disregards it just as quickly. These two are meant to be empathetic in their childlike reactions, but that empathy is lost when one realises that they are both adults that have committed actions – nay, crimes – with serious repercussions.
As directed by Mark Jackson, the play is well-paced for time and well-placed on the Ashby Stage. Set designer Robert Broadfoot’s simple barn set is taken full advantage of, with much more space suggested than actually shown. Sound designer Matt Stein creates a perfectly natural country ambience in the “present” scenes. So too are the sounds in the fantasy/flashback/flash-forward scenes, though the cacophonous sound would occasionally come close to drowning out the actors’ voices.
I’d be remiss not to mention said sequences in greater detail. The play begins with Bonnie and Clyde stating their intentions to the audience directly. This is followed by the play proper, with frequent interruptions – they are loud and jarring – in which one or both characters will talk to the audience whilst old black-and-white footage is projected on the barn behind them. Said projections, designed by Micah Stieglitz, are a wonder to behold; especially a sequence when Bonnie recalls being at a fairgrounds and the projected images are designed to move along the specific architecture of the set.
Technically, the sequences are stunning, but they also highlight the problems of Peck’s script. In these sequences Bonnie and Clyde address the audience with a maturity and enlightenment that is contradictory to their “normal” scenes. When telling historical stories an author – a dramatist in particular – must make a choice as to whether or not the characters are aware of their place in history or if they are living in the moment, unaware of what is to come. Peck tries to have it both ways and the result is a collection of disparate pieces that don’t form a cohesive whole. Worse yet it his attempt to make the story a tragedy: these two are not victims of circumstance or cruel fate; they’re two adults who made choices that have affected people’s lives.
As presented by Shotgun, Bonnie & Clyde is a technically stunning performance piece acted out palatable energy and style. If only they’d been given a script that was equally up to the task.
The plays runs until Sunday, 29 September 2013. For information and tickets, please visit Shotgun Players.