Christian Bringhurst

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July 26, 2014
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Play review: 'Gutenberg!' presses history to fanciful, frenetic limit

It’s “Gutenberg! The Musical!” — a production so fabulous it requires not one but two exclamation points to get the point across.

Why a musical about Johannes Gutenberg, the 15th-century inventor of the printing press, you ask? To be silly.

The musical, which debuted Friday at the Oregon Musical Theatre Festival at Umpqua Community College, is designed as a farcical show-within-a-show about two would-be Broadway writers who want to try out their new production for us theatergoers in case one of us happens to be a big-shot Broadway producer willing to fund their enterprise.

During this musical sales pitch, Bud Davenport (Shady Moore) and Doug Simon (Taylor Mead) provide running commentary about their brilliant little brainchild while playing all of the characters themselves. Their props are scarce, and they are accompanied only by a pianist named Charlie (Elona Wong).

When signaling to the audience that a change of character is happening, one of them throws on a different hat with the name of the character written in Sharpie across the front, which necessitates the wearing of as many as eight to 10 hats at a time to accommodate the rapid character shifts.

The audience soon learns that this musical about the life of Gutenberg owes more to the creative powers of Bud and Doug than it does to the life story of the real inventor.

Bud and Doug, it seems, have discovered (via Google) that biographical details about Gutenberg’s life are abysmally scarce, so they do some creative writing to fill in the gaps in the historical record — a work of “historical fiction,” as they explain.

In their hands, Gutenberg is magically reimagined as not just an inventor of movable type but a champion for literacy, a defender of Jewish rights, a combater of religious hypocrisy and, curiously, a former winemaker.

He stumbles upon the idea for his invention while witnessing one instance after another of rampant illiteracy in his hometown of Schlimmer, Germany. First, his friend loses a child because the friend was unable to read the label on a bottle of what he thought was medicine. Its true contents? Jelly beans.

“Jelly beans,” sings his friend in tones of mock lamentation. “Not medicine. If only I could read, my son he wouldn’t need … an elegy.”

In the next scene, Gutenberg is strolling through town when he encounters a mother and daughter. When Gutenberg politely inquires how she is doing, the girl replies despondently: “As happy as I can be … considering I can’t read.”

It eventually occurs to Gutenberg that he could solve these people’s problems by converting his wine press into a — wait for it — printing press.

It’s pure absurdity, and in the hands of lesser actors it might have been downright tedious. Fortunately, Meade and Moore work brilliantly together, flashing in and out of character like colors on a mood ring while capering about the stage at a frenetic pace.

One moment Moore is stalking the boards as a fiendish Catholic monk while his underling, Mead, gimps about with a foot-long pencil stuck in his rib cage that Moore has just thrust there.

In the next scene a suddenly languorous Moore is playing Gutenberg’s lovelorn assistant, Helvetica, who strokes her flaxen braids while Mead’s Gutenberg struts about the stage solving the literacy problems of the Western world.

It is one dizzying transformation after another that these two somehow manage effortlessly, goring every sacred cow from religion to showbiz itself in the process.

It’s tempting to compare them to some of the wacky ’70s variety shows like Sonny & Cher or Donnie & Marie — but only if you imagine the Osmonds performing in front of a fun house mirror and running around for an hour with their hair on fire.

• Christian Bringhurst teaches language arts at Camas Valley Charter School and is a former reporter and editor at The News-Review.

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The News-Review Updated Jul 28, 2014 09:13AM Published Jul 26, 2014 11:50PM Copyright 2014 The News-Review. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.