There are some stories that can be told a million times and never grow old. The tale of Bonnie and Clyde is one of these American mythologies that finds itself in decades’ worth of films, songs and, recently, theater. It contains all the elements of a lasting American classic — guns, crime and sexuality. The two toted guns, robbed banks, committed murders, were deeply in love and died young and beautiful.
British playwright Adam Peck’s theatrical rendering of the story, not-so-surprisingly titled “Bonnie & Clyde,” opened last Tuesday on Berkeley’s Ashby Stage. Unlike most “Bonnie & Clyde” retellings, including the 2011 failed Broadway musical of the same name, Peck’s stage version strays from glamorizing and glorifying the legendary outlaws. No longer are they our American Robin Hoods — they’re simply two ordinary people stuck in a way of life structured by their surroundings and exaggerated by the media.
The play is set in the era of the Great Depression. Bonnie Parker (Megan Trout) and Clyde Barrow (Joe Estlack) are seeking refuge in an abandoned wooden barn with a shotgun and pistols in tow. The 80-minute production chronicles the young lovers’ final night, prior to the day of the ambush that took their lives. Peck strips the characters down in a complex yet exquisite manner, slowly undressing them layer by layer to reveal their true natures and allowing the audience to genuinely feel, but not fully grasp, the love and romantic relationship shared by the two. They fight, they reminisce, they can beans, they make love and they even play hopscotch.
In Peck’s script, we become acquainted with a Bonnie Parker who is nowhere as malicious as the media’s portrayal of her but rather is a childlike young woman who finds herself both deeply invested in the love she has for Clyde and utterly enchanted by being in the limelight. This Clyde Barrow similarly differs from the media’s caricatured depiction of a cold-hearted murderer and is shown to be someone who doesn’t take the act of killing lightly.
Trout mesmerizes as the almost naive Bonnie, and Estlack captures the serious and perplexed nature of Clyde exquisitely.
The two actors not only seem to understand their characters inside and out but also know precisely how and when to play them as harmonious lovers and as clashing individuals.
Much of the production’s appeal comes from aspects outside of the script. Robert Broadfoot’s geometric wooden set design, accompanied by the spectacular lighting, projections and sound designs of Jon Tracy, Micah Stieglitz and Matt Stines, respectively, works to create a live-action art installation. The many dance numbers in the work, stunningly choreographed by Kimberly Dooley, also add a fantastic new dimension to the story playing out onstage.
The word “gorgeous” doesn’t even begin to brush the surface when it comes to describing the production as a whole. Just as the story of Bonnie and Clyde holds the elements of a great and lasting American myth, Shotgun Players’ “Bonnie & Clyde” contains all the vital ingredients of good theater. This work, commissioned by the local theater company and directed by Mark Jackson, is a hybrid form of theater-meets-performance-art. Alluring in almost every way, the production boasts a script equally delicate and dramatic, with dreamlike interludes of internal monologues and poetry reading, coalesced with gorgeous visual projections and modern dance. The story of Bonnie and Clyde, in this case, is not simply being told and acted out in dialogue but also uses dance and visual art.