Review: Berkeley Rep’s ‘Octet’ makes you feel just how bad the internet is

“Octet” is receiving its West Coast premiere at Berkeley Rep. Front row: Justin Gregory Lopez as Toby (left), Margo Seibert as Jessica and Kim Blanck as Karly. Second row: Kuhoo Verma as Velma (left), JD Mollison as Marvin and Isabel Santiago as Paula. Back row: Adam Bashian as Ed (left) and Alex Gibson as Henry. Photo: Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theater

To use the internet today is to know instantly that it’s not good for you. Each far-reaching tentacle of its badness is already intimately understood: its mob rule, its brain-rotting games, its seductive and time-sucking refresh button; the way it builds walls even in the sacred closeness of the marriage bed, the way it impoverishes and poisons debating and dating alike.

Yet as Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s “Octet” delves into these ills, the effect is very different from that of, say, scrolling past yet another tweet complaining about Twitter. Dave Malloy’s chamber musical, whose West Coast premiere opened Wednesday, April 27, follows an internet support group that’s also an eight-person a cappella group, which proves to be about as close to the opposite of the internet as you can get. Not only must the singers share physical space and lock in eye contact and forge exquisite, gossamer harmonies from disparate voices; they must also breathe together as a human thermodynamic engine.

Margo Seibert as Jessica in “Octet” at Berkeley Rep. Photo: Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theater

You sitting in the audience are part of that engine, too, and somehow, through the mysterious alchemy of in-person theater, the horrors the internet has wrought on our inner and outer lives sink in afresh.

It really is ghastly that, as Henry (Alex Gibson) sings, an addiction to “Candy Crush Saga” can mean, “Sometimes I just don’t bathe. I barely leave my bed, and I don’t brush my teeth, eatin’ nothing but chips and pop for three whole days.” Or that social media users don’t just get attacked; they actively and compulsively seek out more evidence of themselves getting attacked, as Jessica (Margo Seibert) bemoans, “reading everything about me in morbid flagellation, multitasking all the tabs of my humiliation.”

If the support group structure, by which each participant takes a turn sharing an embarrassing truth, quickly wearies, director Annie Tippe finds ingenious ways to make the cluttered, musty church basement where the group meets (Amy Rubin and Brittany Vasta did the richly detailed scenic design) morph. In her staging, the group can conjure baptismal pool or drugstore checkout line, the darkness and loneliness of cyberspace or a god visiting a science lab.

JD Mollison as Marvin in “Octet.” Photo: Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theater

“Octet” either keeps its characters everyman enough that they don’t stick with you or, after introducing them piquantly and economically, promptly moves on to the next humiliating confession before we’re ready to say goodbye to the last.

Yet Tippe’s actors still soar even with that heavy constraint. Under the music direction of Or Matias, Isabel Santiago doesn’t just make her voice into a dagger; she twists it around inside after a stab.

The wide-eyed Kuhoo Verma, with equal acumen in moments of comedy and pathos, has the show’s only entirely solo number, just her voice in the quiet and darkness, no backup, and she seems to enlist the entire venue, air particles and all , into her world-building effort.

Kuhoo Verma as Velma in “Octet.” Photo: Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theater

Malloy, who is best known for the cult favorite “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812” (which Shotgun Players is producing later this year), makes the internet take musical form. The song “Refresh” seems to cascade, even inundate, the way a newsfeed overwhelms. In “Solo,” incel trolls grumble and growl from the stage’s dark corners, as might trolls under a bridge.

With its church setting, its references to tarot cards and hymns, its visitations by gods and monsters, its throwaway mentions of someone called Saul who magically organized the group, “Octet” keeps trying to reach winkingly for some vague higher ground that it never quite reach. Still, even nicks and ricochets off the spirit world serve as welcome reminders that some arenas of life will never be contained by desktop windows.

M“Byte”: Written by Dave Malloy. Directed by Annie Tippe. Through May 29. One hour, 45 minutes. $29-$159, subject to change. Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. 510-647-2949. www.berkeleyrep.org


  • Lily Janiak
    Lily Janiak is The San Francisco Chronicle’s theater critic. Email: ljaniak@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @LilyJaniak

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