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Theatre in Review: Octet (Signature Theatre)

Photo: Joan Marcus.

In Octet, Dave Malloy keeps charting his own singular musical-theatre path, this time takin on a challenge that, even by his own exacting standards, is fraught with peril. The show unfolds at a twelve-step meeting for Internet addicts, a subject that, on paper, couldn't be more drab or off-putting; one can be entirely forgiven for expecting an evening of dreary life lessons, a big pot of chicken soup for the overly digitized soul. How, then, is it possible that Octet contains passages that are positively ecstatic, even as they lay bare its characters' appalling, even sordid, obsessions?

The answer, I think, lies in Malloy's deployment of music as testimony, in the spiritual sense of the word. An a cappella song cycle linked by brief book scenes, Octet combines incisive dramatic monologues with moments of gorgeous babel, all presented in ravishing vocal arrangements. The sheer lyric beauty is Malloy's way of getting us to listen to tales of anguish that, at first, may seem extreme but, on reflection, feel like authentic accounts of those derailed by the tinselly seductions of modern technology.

Indeed, the members of the group begin with a hymn in which they confront "Isolation, anxiety/Inability to assimilate with society/And the fear that the monster will find me/Infect me and blind me/Butcher my heart and distort my soul." The "monster," of course, is the need to keep logged on, drowning oneself in trivia, misinformation, disinformation, and manufactured rage. That these eminently harsh words are delivered via a stream of gorgeously arranged melodies neatly sums up Malloy's cunning methodology.

It's become de rigueur to wring one's hands about the toxic effects of digital technology, but Octet is unafraid to confront the havoc it can wreak on one's sense of self. Among those sharing their troubles are Jessica, who says, "You've all seen my 'white woman goes crazy' video." Having been caught running amok on camera, she sings that she is "That one/Righteous mobmind casualty/Sacrificial lamb," adding, "I watched myself reborn as an icon/For awfulness and hate." Henry, a young gay man addicted to online games, notes that he has met someone new, adding, "We've just had a couple of dates, and the last one I only snuck off to the bathroom twice, so that seems good." In a show-stopping number, he notes, "All the games I like have candy in them/All the games I like from lap to pad/Swedish Fish and Red Hots/Sour Bears and Choc-Chocs." The number's gospel-music elation fades as he admits, "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 brainrot/Stupid and dry-eye poison?" Ed and Karly are serial online daters, searching fruitlessly for the perfect hookup. Ed sings, "I feel my body stretched between two cliffs/One side is fantasy/The other reality/I feel my fingers start to lose their grip/And I can't hold on." As Karly notes, bitterly, you find what you look for: "And, of course, when I actually do have sex with someone, it's usually like, 'Wow, you watch a lot of porn'."

In another number, the entire company weighs in on the consequences of the endless pursuit of clickbait, singing, "Your brain is chemically changed/Your mind goes dark and strange/And you fall apart/Like a naked mannequin/Clattering to the floor." Not for nothing is the term "obsessive-compulsive disorder" added into the discourse. One comes to feel that most of these characters are only a few clicks away from annihilation.

How these downbeat and self-lacerating accounts are transformed into something entrancing without losing their essential power is a mystery perhaps known only to Malloy; Or Matias, the musical director; and Annie Tippe, the director, all of whom maintain firm control over their eccentric characters and their wayward souls. In an exceptionally strong cast, standouts include Starr Busby as the determinedly serene group facilitator; Margo Seibert as Jessica, the permanent object of scandal; Alex Gibson as, heartbreaking as love-hungry Henry; and Kuhoo Verma as Velma, a painfully socially awkward young lady who, alone among the group, finds some kind of succor from her addiction when she meets a like-minded potential girlfriend online.

The production has an immersive quality, thanks to the set by Amy Rubin and Brittany Vasta, which calls up every church basement you've ever been in, complete with cement-block walls, steel chairs, a coffee maker, and signs bearing uplifting messages. Christopher Bowser's lighting works a series of subtle mood shifts that add a great deal to each number. Brenda Abbandandolo's costumes show a thorough understanding of each character's personal style. Hidenori Nakajo's sound design achieves an ideal transparency, keeping all the voices in balance.

If there is a weakness in Octet, it is the lack of forward motion. The script is structured as a kind of string of pearls, with each testimony designed to top its predecessor, but with no real conflict or resolution. In search of variety, some of the later passages feel less pertinent. The climactic sequence, led by the fine J. D. Mollison about a scientist who (along with his colleagues) has a visitation from God - which, despite any number of signs and wonders, he and the others cannot accept, so hollowed out are they by rationality -- seems to come from another conversation altogether. Also, a "tower tea ceremony," in which everyone ingests a mild hallucinogen in order to mentally detach, is a rather woozily conceived, a pause that doesn't fully refresh. Having so mordantly diagnosed his characters' problems, Malloy is at a loss when it comes to doing something about them.

Then again, in an environment where the search for love is turned into a digital shopping expedition; where reputations are made and savaged on an hourly basis; and where a speech made by the Speaker of the House can be distorted to make her look drunk or the victim of a neurological disease, in a video enthusiastically tweeted by the President of the United States, who knows what the answers are? It's probably enough that Octet is a strong, striking piece of work about a much-touted technological wonder that has, in full view, become a twenty-first-century dystopia. Listen in, enjoy the glorious sounds -- and weep. --David Barbour

(29 May 2019)

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