Theater Review: OCTET (Berkeley Rep in Berkeley)

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by Harvey Perr on April 29, 2022

in Theater-San Francisco / Bay Area


Dave Malloy, the genius (and I don’t use that word loosely) who wrote the music, lyrics, book and vocal arrangements for his chamber musical Octet, which is now enjoying what is hopefully a healthy run at Berkeley Rep, asks more questions than any reasonable person could find answers to, but which encourages the audience to confront itself, through the eight characters on stage, on its own addiction to the internet.

(center) Alex Gibson (Henry); (l to r) Margo Seibert (Jessica),
Justin Gregory Lopez (Toby), and Isabel Santiago (Paula)

Let me say right off the bat that I was computer-ignorant until I was forced to change course if I wanted to continue living on this planet, but, despite my giving in, I felt instinctively that the internet was going to dehumanize us if we let it and, in the process, rob us of big chunks of our collective soul. So I did not identify, as a large swath of the audience seemed to, with the hell that its addicts had gone through. So, for a while, I felt that while Octet is never less than interesting, it is rarely more than interesting, until I realized the problem was mine and not the artists involved.

(center) Alex Gibson (Henry); (l to r) Adam Bashian (Ed), Margo Seibert (Jessica),
J.D. Mollison (Marvin), Kuhoo Verma (Velma), Isabel Santiago (Paula),
Justin Gregory Lopez (Toby), and Kim Blanck (Karly)

For this is one of the most innovative theatrical pieces in recent memory. I was won over because, leaving the theater, I felt the continuing impact of what I had experienced. Bounty should not go unrewarded.

(center) Isabel Santiago (Paula); (seated) Kuhoo Verma (Velma) and J.D. Mollison (Marvin)

First, there is the very happy union between Malloy and his director, Annie Tippe; they are both endlessly inventive and unquestionably passionate and theatrically nimble, and, with the aid of a remarkable ensemble of performers, beautifully thread the needle from concept to construct to execution. It’s what they talk about when referring to the magic that can take place in a theater when everyone does what is simply required of them, and does it with skill and panache.

(front) Margo Seibert (Jessica); (back, standing) Isabel Santiago (Paula); (seated)
J.D. Mollison (Marvin), Justin Gregory Lopez (Toby), Adam Bashian (Ed), Alex Gibson (Henry)

The idea is that eight people meet weekly at a support meeting to share their horrific connections to the internet, taking us on a fantastic journey that has what might be called a spiritual destination. They are also, an a capella group, a kind of Greek chorus, dressed as if they had just walked off the street so that they are also, a kind of collective everyman and everywoman. Nightmares are their concern, but doesn’t the tea ceremony which comes at the end of their session suggest a kind of Mass? Doesn’t the hissing steam that emerges from the teapot represent the spirit of a higher being? As I suggested, all the questions cannot reasonably be answered, but they are all worth asking and worth contemplating.

Kim Blanck (Karly);
(background, l to r) Adam Bashian (Ed), Kuhoo Verma (Velma), and Alex Gibson (Henry)

The actors are so in tune with each other, which is surely because they have worked together for so long (this is the same cast, minus one, that did the show in its initial run at New York’s Signature Theatre and it’s a blessing they were all able to remain together in this west coast production); vocally and physically, they move and sing as one. It is only fair to give them all credit — Adam Bashian, Kim Blanck, Alex Gibson, Justin Gregory Lopez, J.D. Mollison, Isabel Santiago, Margo Siebert, Kuhoo Verma — and, if I may, single out Gibson for his charming goofiness, Mollison for his earthbound madness, Vermas for the stillness at the center of her solo.

Adam Bashian (Ed) and J.D. Mollison (Marvin)

There are hints of a forced theatricality here and there — this could have easily become a static event if anyone dropped the ball — but those moments come and go and never really get in the way of the propulsive energy that activates the piece.

(center) Justin Gregory Lopez (Toby); (front) Kim Blanck (Karly), Alex Gibson (Henry)

Mention should be made of the church basement that Amy Rubin and Brittany Vasta have designed with such an extraordinary attention to detail. And there are moments in Christopher Bowser‘s lighting design, especially as the piece moves forward in not always predictable ways, that are truly either mysterious or electrifying or both simultaneously.

Kuhoo Verma (Velma)

Octet deals with the world we live in, which, in itself, bears noting. It is a frightening world. But, through the art of its creative team, it offers a kind of redemption. And it also happens to be extremely entertaining even as it asks us to confront our own demons.

And doesn’t it say something that the human voice, in this instance, transcends the nastiness of the internet?

(first row) Justin Gregory Lopez (Toby), Margo Seibert (Jessica), and Kim Blanck (Karly);
(second row, l to r) Kuhoo Verma (Velma), J.D. Mollison (Marvin), and Isabel Santiago (Paula);
(back row, l to r) Adam Bashian (Ed) and Alex Gibson (Henry)

photos by Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

J.D. Mollison (Marvin)

Berkeley Rep
co-production with Signature Theatre Company
Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Peet’s Theatre
2025 Addison Street @ Shattuck
ends on May 29, 2022
for tickets, call 510.647.2949 or visit Berkeley Rep

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