Photo: Rick Pollock
Driving to Park City is quite the trek for someone who doesn’t like travelling further south than Trolley Square. If I lived in a bigger city, a half hour drive to an iconic little post-mining town might seem ridiculously close, but I live in Salt Lake City, where a fifteen minute drive to the point of the mountain feels like a journey to the limits of civilized society. In the case of Plan B’s newest play production, Gutenberg! The Musical!, the drive is definitely worth it.
If I had to sum up the play in a single word, I’d call it delightful. Gutenberg! The Musical! is a play based loosely on the life of Johannes Gutenberg, the enigmatic father of the printing press, and the little German town of Schlimmer where he originally operated his wine press. I say “loosely” because the storyline involves not just a historically fictitious reenactment of Gutenberg and his invention, but the story of two the fictional playmakers who had written the Gutenberg play and hoped to get the play produced with a strong opening night pitch that very evening. Accordingly, the actors treat the audience as potentially filled with powerful Broadway producers who could make their dream a reality with a simple nod of the head, making the playmakers’ nervous enthusiasm appear completely genuine. Their chipper, almost naïve candor with the audience managed to break the fourth wall in a very natural manner, and it was easy to believe that the playmakers really did think that their play was good enough to be on Broadway, regardless of how ridiculous it obviously was.
The play had a very unique format; all the characters are played solely by two actors, Kirt Bateman and Jay Perry, who manage to play multiple personas through the use of ball caps with the name of the character written on top in big black letters. Although the print might be hard to read for those without 20/10 eyesight, it was generally easy to tell when the actors were representing main characters like Gutenberg and his love interest Helvetica, and supporting roles like the Beef Fat Trimmer and Anti-Semite. The actors at times would wear upwards of seven or so hats on their heads, switching them out furiously as they portrayed a crowd of people, making the actors’ organizational skills pretty impressive. The play would carry on in between moments where the actors would step back into their roles as authors, where they would break for quick, witty explanations of terms that had come up in the dialogue.
“But what is foreshadowing,” one would ask the other?
“Well I’ll tell you … later.”
The style of the play was explained in this exact format.
“But what is historical fiction?”
“It’s fiction … that’s true.”
That’s dialogue I can get behind.
As the name itself indicates, the play is also a musical, with songs spontaneously erupting throughout the production. Being a big fan of musicals, I was pleased to discover the vast majority of the songs were well written and not too long, a common problem in musicals that take themselves a little too seriously. Not surprisingly, the majority of the hooks were catch and release, but I did catch myself humming, “dreams, we eat dreams,” a number of times on the drive down the hill. The songs were accompanied flawlessly on piano by the impressive Sean Sekino, and the harmonious pairing of the actors’ voices caught my attention on more than one occasion. There was something reminiscent of the movie Cannibal! the Musical in the interweaving of songs, comically PG humor, and splattering of tongue-in-cheek adult content. My favorite example of the latter is when one of the actors erupted screaming, “Holy shit, what the fuck was that?!” That’s a very natural question that I’m often left asking myself as well, so the fact that such dialogue made it onto a stage seems perfectly reasonable.
The introduction of the anti-Semite was an interesting spin that raised a few brows. The producers said they had to bring up the Holocaust because plays only gain importance through great drama, and the Holocaust represented the most tangibly related drama to Germany for modern viewers. Hence they had a character simply called the Anti-Semite Flower Girl who would go around and talk shit about Jews whenever the proper hat was on. The character does get chewed out by Gutenberg at one point, who assumed the lack of cultural/racial sensitivity had more to do with a lack of understanding brought about by the inability of the young girl to read, which in turn was due to the lack of accessible reading material. I’m not actually sure why the whole Jewish thing was written into the play, but I can only assume the creators, Scott Brown and Anthony King, had some vague, New York reason. Although the line of reasoning does allow one to assume anti-Semitism could be cured through the invention of the printing press, I couldn’t help but think there might have been better, less potentially offensive way to go about this. That said, the topic wasn’t too heavy and was expressed as morally wrong, so I chalked it all up to the famous line, “Fuck ‘em if they can’t take a joke.”
Overall, I found Gutenberg! The Musical! to be a good place to take a date. I found the play to be a genuinely funny piece that allowed the actors to engage the audience in a very heartfelt and personal way, turning the characters into guys you’d pull for, and it adequately relieved some of the awkward pressure of sitting next to a cute girl. As the young lady who accompanied me to the show put it, “At first I liked the big guy the most … and then I decided I liked the little guy … but then I decided I liked them both the most.” I agreed completely. The actors came off as super nice guys who would be a great addition to a dinner party, like a solid brother-in-law you could joke around with at an otherwise sterile family reunion. Their friendly demeanor had a disarming charm to it, and I found myself believing beyond my better judgment that they could actually get their ridiculous play produced. The Egyptian Theater is an intimate setting for the play, and all the proceeds and tips generated from the snack bar go directly towards the operating costs of the theater itself, making a $2.00 dollar fountain drink more like a charitable donation. Go watch this play, it’s a win-win situation for everybody.
Egyptian Theater in Park City, UT