Last Sunday evening I drove over to Frankfort in Clinton County to see the season opener at the Red Barn Summer Theatre. This production of “Mind Over Matt,” written by Scott Haan, is a world premiere. It was directed by the Red Barn’s artistic director, Stephen L. Henderson, with technical direction by Martin L. Henderson. Cathlyn Melvin was the assistant to the director.
It is a funny play, very “clean” in terms of language and content but also filled with deliciously awkward situations and clever word play. Some of the puns made me groan, but mostly I laughed a lot.
The plot is very simple on the surface – a handsome young graphic designer, Matt (Zach Murray), makes a fool of himself in front of a beautiful young woman, Penny (Rachael Lau), on their first date. Then he makes a fool of himself again when he leaves an “I like you” message by mistake in the voice mail of his also-beautiful but terrifying, workaholic boss (Linda Benge.)
What makes the show fascinating and satisfying is that we don’t just look in on Matt’s life. We also get to look in on his brain. Matt has five embodied egos:
Butch (Derek Elstro) is the side of Matt that likes to party hearty and hang the consequences. He wears a shaggy beard and a shirt that says, “Do something with your life. Get me a beer!” (Wardrobe by Linda Benge.)
Dylan (Chris Daley) is the side of Matt that knows how to make himself look good. He wears a business suit and carries a mirror so that he can check his appearance regularly. His manners are, for the most part, impeccable.
Floyd (Jonathan Kenworthy) is a Star Wars citing, comic book loving, James Bond imitating, uber-dweeb, complete with hairy knees, tape on his glasses, and stress-related allergies.
Zeke (J. Lewis Fox) is a C.O.D. – a Cranky Old Dude. Often he just sleeps, thumbs in his overalls, but Matt has noticed that as he grows older, Zeke becomes more and more present, grousing loudly about how much better everything used to be, back in the day.
And finally, Matt has a feminine side, too. Her name is Rose (Tara Dorsey.) She wears preppy pink and coaches Matt on how to be cheerful and considerate of others.
Each of these aspects of Matt’s personality sometimes fights with the others to dominate his words and actions. Other times they work together, or try to, at least. For example, when Mrs. Snyder, Matt’s landlady (Cathlyn Melvin), comes to complain about the rent being late, the others move out of the way so that suave Dylan can stand right behind Matt to help him sweet-talk her into patience.
Each of these aspects of Matt’s personality is hilarious in his or her own right. When all of them are on stage together, it’s a wonderful madhouse. There is a lot of physical humor to go along with the verbal humor. I loved that all five characters reacted in unison when Matt got hit in the head, for example. But I also loved noticing how the five all reacted differently according to their unique aspects at other times.
And as if five egos weren’t enough, sometimes they are joined by Matt’s devilish side (David Berghoef) and his angelic side (Cassandra Quinn)!
I didn’t see the surprise ending coming at all, but it makes sense.
The set, designed by Martin L. Henderson and lit by Stephen L. Henderson, is a delight, too. Matt’s apartment has a lovely window seat and covet-worthy geek posters on the walls. When the lights come up on the first scene, there is a dress shoe in the middle of the floor, sports equipment stashed in corners, and beer bottles everywhere, conveying volumes about the person who lives there. Doug Davis is the properties master.
Some of the scene changes involve cleaning up spills quickly. The set crew does a great job. Its members include Allen Hayes, Tim Fox, David Berghoef, Cassandra Quinn, and the whole company.
I can’t tell from the program who chose the music to go with the scene changes, and I couldn’t identify the piece by listening, but it was just right in terms of amplifying the mood. I also loved the “Goldfinger” theme song at intermission. Tim Fox is the lighting and sound operator.
My only quibble with this thoroughly enjoyable show is that the actors take almost too much care to speak slowly and enunciate carefully, especially in the first act. I appreciated being able to hear and understand them so well, but the pace of their interactions seemed unnaturally slow. Still, I would rather a company err on the side of clarity than mumble.
At intermission and after the show, I got to chat a bit with the playwright, Scott Haan. He is a cutie, but he says he is most like Floyd, Matt’s inner dork, and that he does not have a feminine side at all. Be that as it may, I enjoyed talking with him, and I appreciated the chance to hear a little about how this play of his came to be produced at the Barn.
Two of his earlier plays, “Insane with Power” and “A Very Bad Day for Brandon Butterworth” debuted with a full production at Clinton County Civic Theatre and a staged reading at the Civic Theatre of Greater Lafayette, respectively. “Insane with Power” has now been published and is available through Eldridge Plays & Musicals. Haan has acted quite a bit and directed a couple of shows at the Clinton County Civic Theatre and now serves on its Board of Directors. (Some of this info comes from the “Mind Over Matt” program.)
However, Haan and his wife had their first date at the Red Barn, twelve years ago, so he also knows the Barn well. When “Mind Over Matt” was ready, Haan thought it might be a good fit for the Barn, whose summer company usually includes several young (college aged or a little older) actors. He sent the script to the Barn’s artistic director, Stephen L. Henderson. Henderson called Haan the next day and said he wanted to produce it. He had already set the Barn’s 2008 season, but he had not advertised it anywhere yet, so he dropped one of the planned shows and replaced it with “Mind Over Matt.”
I’m glad he did.
I have not seen “Insane with Power,” but Haan told me that its fans will notice a reference or two to its superheroes in “Mind Over Matt.” I asked Haan what else his plays have in common.
He said that he is writing for high school and community theatres, so he asks himself, “Would I be embarrassed if my parents saw this?”
I also asked him what it was like, being in the audience for one of his own plays. He said he would not be able to able to attend any of next weekend’s performances, so he had been to every performance the first weekend. (By the way, at the Barn, the “weekend” begins with a performance on Wednesday night.) Each night he followed a different actor. He loved seeing what each person brought to the roles he had written.
He also said that although he loved what the Barn’s actors, designers, and director had done with the show, he was noticing small things in the script that he wanted to change, things that he could do to make it even tighter, now that he had seen it fully produced and in front of audiences.
For example, the show opens with two men on a sofa, asleep. One man’s bare legs are draped over the other man’s lap, as directed by the script. Haan said he realizes now that the visual is “creepy” so he wants to change it to having Matt asleep at his desk and only Zeke asleep on the sofa. I didn’t think the visual was creepy, but I agree that the way it is now, the audience spends a lot of time wondering about the nature of the relationship between the two men, rather than paying attention to what the other characters are saying as they enter. Haan’s revision would free the audience to get into the actual story right away.
However, he won’t ask the current director and actors to make this change. Haan said that the way the Barn operates, the cast rehearses a show intensely for two weeks and then, while they are performing that show for the public in the evenings, they are rehearsing a new show during the days. Even a seemingly small change like moving Matt from the sofa to his desk without any changes in lines would have a domino effect on the blocking, requiring too many changes to be fair to the actors at the Barn.
Haan is also hearing places where the material repeats itself a tiny bit and/or where “we are wearing out our welcome at the end.” It is all useful information for him to use in tweaking the script further before submitting it for publication.
Everything he said made sense to me, and I was interested in hearing it, but I enjoyed the show I saw, too. As is.
And…I just loved being out at the Red Barn Theatre again. This place is a power spot for me: I always feel good after spending time there. I have to drive an hour to get there, but it’s worth it. Right now, the corn in the fields surrounding the theatre is on schedule to be “knee-high by the Fourth of July.” The snowball bushes in the theatre’s gardens are blooming and the goldfish are lively in the pond.
A world premiere of a funny show in an idyllic setting. Life is good.
“Mind Over Matt” continues at the Red Barn Summer Theatre through Sunday, June 29, 2008. The box office is open daily after 5 pm or you can leave a message any time. Call 765-659-1657 or toll-free 1-877-659-1657 to make a reservation.
Hope Baugh – www.IndyTheatreHabit.com