Something shifted in me about four songs in to the new, extraordinary chamber choir musical Octet at Berkeley Rep, and I went from passive, half-engaged audience member to willing participant in the room. It was an alchemy I imagine many people felt as composer Dave Malloy's piece attempts to draw us in to a form of group therapy about what the internet is doing to us all.
The setting is a church basement or rec room — a familiarly depressing, neglected space with wood paneling, aging carpet, folding chairs, a dusty coffee machine, and bland affirmations on the wall belonging to one or another 12-step program that has its meetings there. (The set by Amy Rubin and Brittany Vasta is very much authentic, and a mood unto itself.) The group of eight having its meeting is called Friends of Saul, and Saul is variously referred to in the show as possibly real, or possibly a bot, or god figure, who brought together this collection of addicts with various app and internet persuasions to sing in gorgeous harmony.
The format and structure of Octet — which originally premiered off-Broadway at New York's Signature Theater in 2019, a year before the pandemic, with much of the same cast as this production — is itself a work of genius. Octal forms are central in computing — there are eight bits in a traditional byte, also called an octet, for instance — and octets go back centuries in Western music tradition. A traditional choral octet, which is what Malloy employs in the cast of this musical, is sometimes referred to using the acronym SSAATTBB (short for 1st & 2nd soprano, 1st & 2nd alto, 1st & 2nd tenor, baritone, and bass).
And by Jehovah, this octet can sing. Having tightened some of these harmonies during the original run three years ago — all but one of the eight original cast members has reprised their role for this second production — each a cappella piece rises and floats in the room with elegant, urgent power.
It's hard to single out any member of the ensemble, given that each pulls their weight in performing the dozen musical numbers that make up the show, most of which involve all eight of them. From the opening hymnal, "Forest," we get a sense of Malloy's project to interweave the sacred and the profane, and to give a sense of religious transcendence to our everyday struggles with social media, porn addiction, and you name whatever compulsion you may have that involves scrolling, swiping, or clicking.
The character Jessica (Margo Siebert) kicks things off with the story of her being humiliated and then canceled on social media because of a not fully explained "incident" caught on camera that she refers to as her "white woman goes crazy video." The ensuing song, "Refresh," is a catchy and moving odyssey describing how she became a "tragic mob-mind casualty" of the modern internet.
In the bluegrass-inflected "Candy," we learn about Henry (Alex Gibson) and his addiction to mobile games (the refrain being "All the games I like have candy in them"). In "Glow," we hear from Paula (Isabel Santiago), the group's moderator, about the tragedy of lying in bed with someone you love, each of you in your own screen worlds, growing ever apart. And in "Solo," we hear from Karly (Kim Blanck), as she suffers the sexist abuse that comes with dating apps.
A couple of the numbers, like the comic but powerful "Little God," get into deeper stuff, like the way people debate meaning, conspiracy, science, and religion in online forums — making light of how smart people can literally explain away anything via science and "future technology," even if it was a miracle happening before their eyes. J.D. Mollison, as Marvin, does a marvelous job with this complex, 11-minute monologue. And I can't neglect to mention Kuhoo Verma's marvelous performance of the awkward, intense, and tarot-obsessed Velma, who delivers the final, quietly powerful solo number, "Beautiful," near the play's end.
The central "hymn" in the middle of the show, "Monster," is a primal-sounding ensemble dirge that focuses on the central antagonist of Octet, the monster that is the social internet.
"Will the monster finally go too far?" the cast sings. "As you watch the monster it digs deeper in your brain, transforming neural pathways with its toxic refrain..."
Malloy's best known work to date is the Tony Award-winning Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812, which was based on a segment of War & Peace, and which was also impressively intricate in its musical composition and its nods to Eastern European songs. Octet further proves Malloy's talent for acrobatic musical feats and stunning harmony, but it turns each song into an intimate, plaintive plea — a testimony amongst friends, or at least amongst trusted group members seeking the same salvation.
Malloy wrote not only the music and lyrics but the book of the show as well, and all three are dense, layered, and without cliche. And with director Annie Tippe's skilled hand at orchestrating the octet's interactions, and Or Matias's taut musical direction, the show comes together with several intense climaxes, and an incredibly moving denouement.
But this brings me back to how, in the space of the Peet's Theatre at Berkeley Rep, everyone becomes one with the group in that church basement. The subject matter is close to home for many of us, and you'll never experience a prettier delivery of a warning message about your screen time. They're sitting in a circle, but the audience is seated all around them, and octet harmonies like these have a magical, communal power.
By the time the group concludes their meeting for the evening — singing "Beyond right and wrong, there is a field, I will meet you there" — you'll almost believe that such a new form of quasi-spiritual, internet-age liturgy exists, and that groups like these have learned these lovely hymns as a comfort to each other, and themselves, when they need to stop scrolling.
'Octet' plays through May 29 at Berkeley Rep. Find tickets here.
Top image by Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre