Matt & Ben makes for ‘wicked smaht’ Vaudeville production

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Confession time: I have never actually seen Good Will Hunting. But, now I can officially say I’ve seen a play full of jokes about it – and had so much fun I might be afraid to ever watch the movie in case it doesn’t measure up!

The play in question is Atomic Vaudeville’s production of Matt & Ben, running Nov. 10–15 at the Roxy Theatre. Written by Mindy Kaling (The Mindy Project) and Brenda Withers (The Office), the show hilariously delves into all things Matt Damon, Ben Affleck, and 1996. It tells the story a young Matt and Ben (played by Amanda Lisman and Britt Small, respectively) who are in the early stages of their film careers when a complete screenplay falls mysteriously from the ceiling — a screenplay titled, Good Will Hunting.

The already absurd premise is made even more glorious by the fact that Matt & Ben is written and performed by women. On stage together, Lisman and Small are like baking soda and vinegar. Their chemistry is bubbling and playfully volcanic, and they have an obvious rapport. “To this day, he’s the only one who I can look straight in the eyes,” says fictional Ben about fictional Matt, and, watching, I could sense both of the actresses’ deep affection for one another and for the characters they play.

It is, of course, a bit of a stretch to imagine these two women as their iconic, movie-star counterparts, and as a result the opening minutes took some getting into. But, Small and Lisman have a buoyant script to steer and in no time they are paddling skillfully. By the end of the show I was so invested in the fictional Matt and Ben’s relationship that it almost seemed like the real Damon and Affleck — pictured in the production design and on promotional materials — were the imposters.

To help the audience assuage any lingering disbelief, director Jacob Richmond and production designer Jimbo Insell have created an engaging surrealist context for the play. In this crumbling apartment — and bizarro 1996 world introduced with sound designer Alex Wlasenko’s great mashup of nostalgic ’90s soundbites — it is easy to believe that Matt Damon has a dark red hair-bun, movie scripts fall from heaven, and Ben Affleck lives in the shadow of a great mountain of pizza boxes.

Said great-wall-of-pizza, by the way, is one of my all-time favourite set design choices. An outrageous touch, it is neatly integrated into the world of the play by R.J. Peter’s lighting design which uses it a makeshift screen for coloured lights and projections. From impeccably grungy set dressings to clever lighting and sound tricks, the entire show’s design is smart and full of surprises.

Richmond has created a wry and nuanced production, with much attention to physicality. Small and Lisman display carefully studied masculine body language, and Lisman in particular shines when — in one of the highest points of the show — she sways out in a fedora to do a stellar impersonation which I won’t say any more about so not to ruin the surprise. Funky interludes with dramatic lighting and movement might be slightly jarring to more traditional audiences, but longtime fans will recognize these affectionately as classic Atomic Vaudeville weirdness. While sometimes distracting, the moments of intense lighting and expressive physicality also provide some great comedic moments and serve to enhance the surrealism of the setting. I would actually like to have seen more rather than less surreal, dramatic weirdness, to really establish the aesthetic and give the production some extra Atomic flair.

All in all though, Atomic Vaudeville can add yet another solid production to their list of successes. Matt & Ben is a well conceived piece of theatre, and very funny. I snorted a lot. You should go.

Tickets are still available for this week’s showings at ticketrocket.co, or at the door. More information about this and upcoming Atomic Vaudeville productions can be found at atomicvaudeville.com.

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