‘GUTENBERG!’ sets a high bar for low budget

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“GUTENBERG! the Musical!” is just as unexpected as the combination of words in its title. The show, which opened off-Broadway in New York in 2006, has circulated back (appropriately) to Yale’s own Off-Broadway Theater and is, indeed, a musical about the printing press. The show continues to fulfill expectations, however, in being unexpectedly coherent for a musical about jelly beans, a malicious monk, biscuits, a dead baby and singing rats. Oh, and there are two cast members, minimal props, no costumes and no set. It’s also entirely historically inaccurate.

If you’re skeptical, the charm of “GUTENBERG!” stems from the fact that its creators know how crazy it sounds. Structured as a play within a play, the show centers around two pals, Bud Davenport (Mike Young ’13) and Doug Simon (Peter Lewis ’13), who have collaborated to create “GUTENBERG! the Musical!” and are looking for a producer to take it to the Big Apple. The entire show is their “pitch” to the Broadway powers that be, with absurdity as its main selling point. Whether you as an audience member buy it, however, depends on your tolerance for the ridiculous.

Not only do Bud and Doug acknowledge the ludicrousness of their story, but they capitalize on it to a fantastical extent. After plugging the name “Johannes Gutenberg” into “AskJeeves” yields “scant” results in the pre-production stage, Bud and Doug decide to weave their own tale of historical fiction. Stereotypical characters exist within an otherwise atypical and quirky plot. The hero, Gutenberg, toils as a wine presser in the fictional town of Schlimmer, Germany, until the townspeople’s illiteracy motivates him to “change the press and make it print some words.” Then there’s Monk, the villain, who exists to thwart Gutenberg’s noble cause, and Helvetica, the beautiful German damsel who pines after the oblivious Gutenberg. Her wittiest line is the woeful lament, “I can’t read him!”

So how do two cast members juggle multiple roles? By juggling hats — many, many hats. Literally. Young and Lewis accomplish this with remarkable dexterity throughout the show; never was a hat donned whose Sharpie-inscribed label did not correspond to the character it represented. And in addition to playing Gutenberg, Monk and Helvetica, they also portray the town drunks, the aforementioned singing rats, Monk’s henchman and a host of other characters.

Young and Simon effectively carry the show, literally and figuratively. They make a chorus line out of hats attached to a wooden pole and create chimney smoke by clapping erasers together. But most importantly, they succeed in sustaining their goofy enthusiasm. Monk’s pivotal duet with Helvetica, “Stop the Press,” emerges as the strongest number, but it suffers from wordy sentence syndrome — it’s just too long! Fewer words, whether printed or sung, often say more. Several other songs suffered from this same misfortune and should’ve ended sooner, if only for the actors’ sakes. The plot manage to continue even after the printing press is smashed to pieces, because as Bud and Doug explain, “The story was over after Gutenberg built the press, so we had to destroy it.”

Young and Lewis’s masterful comedic banter keeps “GUTENBERG! the Musical!” alive, though, and one can’t help but sympathize with their characters’ earnest desire to see their names in lights. Technically precise lighting within the show also plays off their funniest exchanges and complements their professional sense of rhythm and timing.

Undoubtedly funny, though markedly quirky, this production that sets a new type of expectation for minimalist theater.

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