By Diana Miranda
Maybe You Like It Productions has just finished a run at the Camden Fringe premiering their comedy Pleading Stupidity, a show written and directed by Caleb Barron and inspired by the real case of the ‘Dumb and Dumber bandits’, as the media called them. The show tells the story of two Aussies who robbed a local bank during their gap year in a Colorado ski town, whilst wearing name tags from their jobs and making no attempt to hide their accents. The crime was solved in eight minutes.
The show’s first half shares the perspective of Chad and Brad, as they have been renamed, and lays out the events spanning from before the robbery to the (unconventional) runaway strategies. Later on, the show adds another layer by bringing the bank clerks’ perspective to light: two women whose lives were affected by the incident. What starts as a feel-good, hilarious show becomes an empathetic navigation of the robbery’s impact on each character. Not that it becomes gloomy all of a sudden; the sixty minutes of the show equal sixty minutes of laughter. But it builds on its foundation to sharpen the characters’ journeys.
Towards the end, a thread of audio clips with people’s responses to the robbery accompanies the bank clerks as they remain onstage, attempting to claim their voice in the matter. This feels like a coherent full stop, although the audio bit is lengthy and feels more like an ellipsis after a while. As I watched this, I pictured how having the Aussies on stage at that moment would round up the story and tighten the multiplicity of voices that the writing accounts for.
Maybe You Like It Productions creates collaborative, high-energy pieces that aim to engage audiences through comedy in order to reclaim theatre as an accessible, fun and sought-after mirror to society. They’re interested in exploring how they frame narratives and the difference that makes in a story. This statement echoed in my head as I watched the show for the first time, during my first encounter with it in a rehearsal room. (Yes, I saw it a couple of times, but more on that later.) As I followed the narrative from Chad and Brad to the bank clerks, I saw coherence between Caleb Barron’s text and the company’s ethos. The media coverage of the case focused on the bank robbing duo with a hint of mockery. This show starts from there (and hilariously juices the mockery), but then moves the spotlight distinctly to those affected by the robbery. But interestingly, it wasn’t always like that.
Following previews in Oxford in February 2020, the company discussed the pre-pandemic version of Pleading Stupidity. Some of them felt that the narrative might victimise the female clerks involved in the crime, leaving them with no voice to reclaim their side of the story. After that, and during the obligated pause that the lockdown forced on the theatre landscape, the text underwent a surgical procedure and Caleb reshaped it to broaden the narrative’s scope. That way, almost like a merry accident, Pleading Stupidity came closer to the company’s principle of reframing narratives.
The focus shift is smooth, and what starts as a two-protagonist show slowly grows into one of four. Looking back, I found myself wishing that the conflict between the clerks and the bandits hinted at this from the beginning in order to have their input as something to look forward to. Otherwise, there’s a sense of having two photos of the same landscape, connected but autonomous. But that’s not something that bothered me as I watched the show. It flows, and it interweaves both perspectives towards the end.
We talked about collaboration a lot in rehearsal. (Well actually, a little.) After the rehearsal, Caleb said that the show wouldn’t have been as funny and clever without the cast’s input following their work in Oxford. Before that actual conversation, some of it happened in my head as I watched the team working together. I remember saying at some point that there was ping-pong energy in the room. They all seemed connected, responsive and aware of each other. I experienced this pretty much the whole time, not only during a scene or a warm-up. It also happened in the ‘meantimes’, before and after a run. I watched them laughing about how a scene went, teasing each other and apologising for missing cues. Mostly, I was captivated by how a comedy show is filled with humour in rehearsals, too. The ways they explore comedy seems to be for their peer’s amusement, and probably to some extent, for me as a somewhat-audience member visiting the rehearsal space. To watch actors performing comedy for the amusement of their rehearsal peers is a way to remember that theatre aims to connect with an audience, whoever that is.
By welcoming me to experience Pleading Stupidity behind the scenes, this seems to be yet another way of reframing narratives. In this case, it combats a narrative of safeguarding the making process’ secrecy that tends to go hand in hand with dominant reviewing forms. The production team behind the show doesn’t see their rehearsal process as mysterious at all, as I learnt when I was planning my visit. The best part of this is that it doesn’t seem deliberate. There’s just a sense of opening doors to see what comes of it.
But how does watching a rehearsal changes its narrative? How does it influence theatre criticism and the way we experience a show? How does it affect the rehearsal space? These are questions to which I don’t have the answer just yet. Mainstream criticism is too solid to break after one strike, but I’m all for exploration mode. This is something I feel in common with Maybe You Like It Productions, however incidental.
In an attempt to find some answers to these questions, the first thing that comes to mind is the comedy in the show. Jokes can’t be infinitely funny, can they? Well, I’m not so sure. Knowing the punchlines made me focus on how the cast tackled them differently each time to make them come to life. I admit it also made me look forward to the ‘new life’ of my favourite bits. The fact that I’ve seen the do-overs, heard some notes and witnessed the spot-on details that made a scene work helped me savour the full-tank potential of the show. I knew the issue with the fake moustache peeling off mid-scene, which made me feel an extra concern when I saw it peeling off at the Hen and Chicken’s Theatre during a performance, but then it filled me with extra delight when I saw them using that mishap as part of the comedy. I had also tasted the focused energy of the cast, so I was frustrated when a transition wasn’t tight or when the words’ flow stumbled. I knew the multi-rolling cast’s chemistry (James Akka, Ellie Cooper, Gemma Daubeney and Barney Newman), so I perceived their responses to each other’s performance more deeply. Spending time in one of their final rehearsals provided me with magnified lenses to navigate the show.
Then there’s the matter of how to shape this written response. Once the mainstream reviewing boat has been rocked, there is some freedom in the written outcomes. As I watched the play, I wanted to write down ideas on my hand as one of the characters does before going to trial. Why not? On one hand: high-energy. On the second hand: collaboration. Then there is the process of navigating a write-notes-in-palms reviewing style. Or perhaps, I could have gotten inspiration from the dream journal they give out at the airport instead of a passport. Or maybe I could post the rest of my notes wrapped in cellophane paper as they intended to do with the stolen money. Those seem like crazy but exciting ideas for some creative criticism. However, I didn’t write down ideas on my hands. I feel bound to the dominant, plain writing styles.
‘Playfulness’ and ‘open dialogue’ are two more things I would write down on my palms. I was happy to learn that the presence of an outsider in a rehearsal injected extra energy into the room and reminded the performers how funny they can be, especially now after so long without having live audiences. There’s also the matter of “losing time”, which we mentioned briefly but lingered in my head. Seizing time is yet another thing that I’ve been thinking about quite a lot during the pandemic, trying to figure out what being productive means during a period when freelancing and theatre work is trickier than usual. Losing time is such a relative thing to say. Sure, we all strive for the best version of our work, and some form of discipline is vital to achieving that. But who is to say what the proper dynamic is to get it done? I look at my palms again. High-energy and Collaboration. Playfulness and Open Dialogue. Yes, those are things I hope I see more in rehearsals as means to seize the day.
Pleading Stupidity is a guarantee of entertainment and fun. It all boils down to that. It doesn’t matter how or where you see it. And I find myself thinking that the opportunity to engage with it as a theatre critic mirrors the collaborative exploration of reframing narratives at the heart of Maybe You Like It Productions. And I gladly subscribe to that interest as I think about the theatre criticism approaches in the way it engages and writes about shows.
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