Dave Malloy (Book, Lyrics, Music, Vocal Arrangements)
Berkeley Repertory Theatre in Co-Production with Signature Theatre
Barely acknowledging the others and each appearing a bit hesitant and even lost, eight individuals – four women, four men – arrive one by one to sit in a circle in what appears to be a church basement. With a nod by one, they begin a sliding hum that resembles an orchestra tuning itself. Soon intertwining, a cappella voices envelope us like a soft blanket of comforting harmonies as the group sings of a safe forest where “my head was clean and clear, alone without fear.” But the tones pick up in intensity and darken as they sing that in the same forest, “There is a monster, and I am the monster,” listing in sung notes that alter the earlier sense of sanctity their now feelings of “isolation, anxiety, inability to assimilate with society.” Fearing the monster will find them, they sing with notes beautiful but haunting of “the fear I have wasted too much of myself on rapid and vapid click-clicks” and “the fear the monster will find me, infect me, blind me.”
And thus begins a weekly meeting of a group of Internet addicts who gather to admit openly their first names and their particular, online addictions, telling their truths in an a cappella song cycle of rhythms, melodies, and even hymns that need no instrumentation beyond the accompanying undertones and percussion of their own voices. In a co-production with New York’s Signature Theatre, Berkeley Repertory Theatre presents the West Coast premiere of Dave Malloy’s Octet – ninety minutes of highly innovative, musical theatre that mesmerizes, challenges, puzzles, and at times near frightens its audience while also clearly inviting us to laugh aloud. Coming out of our two years where we have all often felt stuck in front of our screens and isolated from live, human contact, Octet is not just about addicts who have crossed over the line of normal, human behaviors. Octet calls to question each of our daily worships before the hallowed screens of our connected lives – computers, pads, and phones.
The evening is a mixture of the entire ensemble singing from a hymnal numbers like the opening “The Forest” and of individuals volunteering to present testimony of their addiction to this group of non-judging, understanding strangers. After installing trackers and blockers and deleting non-essential apps, Jessica (Margo Seibert) admits in “Refresh” to having a bit of a relapse in the past week as a “ego-surfer,” singing first with a sense of almost innocent wonder and discovery of herself glued to the screen “reading everything about me.” With the rest of the group reflecting her increasingly desperate search for self in their various choruses of “refresh,” panicked breaths, and non-word syllables, Jessica’s voice intensifies to expose the pain of her inability to disengage or to be more than the icon she has become online. As the chorus now together crescendos their “refresh, refresh, refresh,” she concludes, “The tech got away from us and we weren’t ready; I don’t think we’re wired to handle this.”
That sequence of some euphoria and excitement in describing fantasy with a personal addiction followed by a deeply felt, often disturbing resignation of its harsh reality plays out again and again in the individuals’ stories. Alex Gibson plays with much joviality and friendliness a lanky Henry who sings in staccato speed of his obsession with games that have candy in them (“Candy”). However, as he sings with growing, sugar-high frenzy that is augmented by background ensemble drumming, he admits to a life gone fully amok and a confession of “I suspect deep down, I don’t care if I die … how else could I be wasting so much time on this sweet, fluorescent, smiling brain rot.”
One by one, others rise to state their names and declare, “I am an addict.” With the ensemble melodically echoing her words, Paula (Isabel Santiago) sings in “Glow” of her and her husband’s joint evenings of “circadian rhythms corrupted” in bed, both glued to “the sallow, blue glow of a screen,” ending with her searchingly singing to her husband, “Oh, babe, where did you go?” With Dave Malloy using actual, anonymous quotes from online chats for the lyrics of “Solo,” Karly (Kim Blanck) and Ed (Adam Bashian) sing in both solo and duet sequences of their obsessions with sex and porn sites, with each singing of a gripping, gut-punching, losing battle between fantasy and reality, concluding “I feel my fingers start to lose their grip, and I can’t hold on.”
With lyrics also coming from online chats, Toby sings in “Actually” – often in a voice that seems distant and disconnected from his body – random quotes of online conspiracies and the Internet’s “infinite selection of bodies and fetishes, ketchups and relishes.” With a chorus surrounding him with one-line “truths” and advice from anonymous cyberspace, Toby finally admits, “You know when I’m in the real world, I can’t interface … I just wanna scroll down.”
First-time attendee, Velma – played by Kuhoo Verma whose vibrant, expressive eyes render their own clarion songs of what is going on inside her – sings with a young girl’s voice of finding her twin online which she may or may not have invented to feel better about her low, self-esteem. Velma is also fascinated to the point of obsessed with the world of Tarot, suddenly coming out of her earlier shell to drive even friendly Henry – and frankly me as an audience member – to near tears of boredom as she goes on and on and on with little pause for breath about Tarot. Her obsession reflects David Malloy’s self-admitted infatuation with Tarot, with his assigning one of the deck’s cards as a sub-title of each of the musical’s eleven songs. That inclusion mostly went over my head and probably anyone one else who has never delved into the realm of Tarot.
Besides Tarot and online chats, the playwright lists dozens of other sources for his text and lyrics – books like The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, Leaves of Grass, and Kill All the Normies; plays such as A Chorus Line and Company; films from Altered States to Blade Runner to The Matrix as well as podcasts, online games, and experimental musical compositions. That eclectic compilation perhaps explains how a strange, seemingly unrelated song like “Little God” becomes the evening’s major production number with neurochemist and declared “devout atheist” Marvin (J.D. Mollison) singing of an encounter with a little girl dressed as a mermaid who claims to be God. He recounts the set of miracles she performs, including turning a coffee maker into a pterodactyl. Even with the incredible staging directed by Annie Tippe and with lighting effects extraordinaire by Christopher Bowser, the number seems out of place and weird enough to cause loss of focus of the overall intent of the evening.
The dark, maddening sides of the Internet particularly expose themselves in two of the more beautifully intricate and yet disturbing full-ensemble numbers. In “Fugue State,” countering melodies; interruptions of “oh no, no, no” duets; and incessant singing of the multiplied powers of “two” are only a few of the stanzas prior to the full ensemble singing in full voice a long list of “I am obsessed with my …” (email, status, updates, etc.) ending with “I am obsessed with my self” and “my monster.” A hymn entitled “Monster” is anchored by the deep, guttural grunts of the men while the women sing of the “monster lurking on the surface of your mind all the time.” The song grows ever harsher with voices reaching into realms of high screeches, ending with the full ensemble repeating in swells of sung phrases, “We are in trouble … trouble, trouble, trouble.”
And although in the end we return to the scene of a forest with closely harmonized voices lifting in hopeful optimism of meeting in a field in the “beyond,” David Malloy’s Octet is mostly a Cassandra of all the bad that is here and is soon coming via our collective obsession with the Internet without there being any avenues suggested for resolve or change. The message seems to be we are in fact all addicted and – perhaps like alcoholics – we will always be so as long as we indulge, which seems inevitable and unavoidable. Octet tries to be a self-help group for us all; but not much aid is provided. It wants us to come away more aware, but it does little to help us deal with or know what to do with that awareness.
But that said, Octet is musically a wow of an evening, with the Berkeley Repertory/Signature Theatre singers casting a spell over us with voices that in stunning solo and in collective blend are nothing short than universally spectacular.
Rating: 4 E
Octet continues through May 29, 2022 in co-production by Berkeley Repertory Theatre and Signature Theatre on the stage of Peet’s Theatre at Berkeley Rep, 2025 Addison Street, Berkeley. Tickets are available online at www.berkeleyrep.org/ or be calling the box office at 510-647-2949 Tuesday – Sunday, noon – 7 p.m.
Photo Credits: Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre