The Review: Signature Theatre’s Octet
Well, this one certainly got under my skin and had me thinking late into the night. It also forced me, quite intensely and wisely, to think twice before each and every impulse I had to look at my phone in the early hours of the morning. Encoded in Octet, the new musical, with music, lyrics, book and vocal arrangements by the spectacularly talented Dave Malloy (Natasha, Pierre…), there is a clear warning for us all. That somewhere in the matrix of our new age, there is a powerfully sneaky threat to our dependency, and it exists quite detailed and deceptively within the screen of our smart phones. It’s a very real one, this threat, as we watch the world around us bury their collective heads in messaging social apps, smart phone games, and the desperate accumulation of ‘likes’ on our Instagram feeds. I can not easily discount this craving for external validation, but this group of eight have come together, courtesy of the mysterious unseen and all-knowing Saul, into a circle of folding chairs to share and support one another in what appears to be a church community center. Through hymn-like song and an attempt to have an honest 12-Step confessional, this band of struggling addicts chime in, a cappella style, about the struggle we as a society are having within our obsessive compulsive relationship to our handheld technology. And how we are losing the fight.
Through the structural play of Tarot card presentation, a connection I had a difficult time wrapping my head around as I know so little about it, Octet drives in to face the fear of the smart phone monster. It’s insanely beautiful and achingly real emotionality that forces itself on me even as I attempted to fall asleep after I got home from this enlightenment. The circle of chairs, designed with a wild attention to detail by scenic designers Amy Rubin (Signature’s Thom Pain…) and Brittany Vasta (St. Clements’ Vilna), with perfectly clairvoyant costuming by Brenda Abbandandolo (MTC’s Continuity), simplistic yet dynamic and detailed lighting by Christopher Bowser (Pipeline’s Folk Wandering), and a clear concise sound design by Hidenori Nakajo (NYTW’s Ghost Quartet) does it’s magic guiding us through the eight cards at play. Feeding us the idea of self-reflection, if we only can get ourselves outside its pull, and see the beautiful forest beyond the trees.
As directed with a clarity of vision by Annie Tippe (IAMA’s Cult of Love), the new deliriously good musical’s striking attention to the psychological details continue to play within my brain, asking me to look deep inside my own dependency to this damning hand held device that is complicating our spirituality and our innate need for human connection. Anxiety and depression are just a few of the outcomes we are told about when conversing online. And not just for the addict, but the “stale pale glow” that we are “not wired to handle” have a power we dread looking at or talking about. But there it is, our face when following that urge for an ego search, as sung with precision by the desperate Jessica, dynamically depicted by Margo Seibert (PH’s The Thanksgiving Play). “Click, swipe, fuck” is the chant of the phone addict, in more ways than one. “Refresh” (V. THE HIEROPHANT) is the optimal position, and “Candy” (IX. THE HERMIT), as perfectly performed by Henry, the gloriously charming Alex Gibson (Broadway’s SpongeBob…) is the ritualistic game. “Glow” (II. THE HIGH PRIESTESS) is ringleader Paula’s sad sweet confession, beautifully embodied by Starr Busby (Apollo Music Café), and “Solo” (VI. THE LOVERS/XIII DEATH), performed beautifully by the majestically gifted Kim Blanck (MCC’s Alice by Heart) as Karly, and the deeply engaging Adam Bashian (Broadway’s In Transit) as Ed, is where they all find themselves even as they look outward for connection. Toby, lovingly portrayed by Justin Gregory Lopez (NBC’s “Jesus Christ Superstar Live“) is dealt and delivers dynamically THE MAGICIAN (“Actually“) and Marvin, fantastically decoded by J.D. Mollison (Signature’s Iphigenia 2.0), THE HANGED MAN (“Little God“). Both, and all for that matter, rapturously entangle our souls. None of them knew that the monster might mean so much in the long run, but within their truths about addiction and the rhythms and harmonies of distorted connection is an ALL CAPS or lower case/no punctuation opinion that is being laid out most beautifully and harmoniously before the beauty of the trees.
“When will the three cherries line up?” they ask in glorious unified reflection, a crazy good reading of a compulsion that can destroy after swiping for days, but it is in the frantic uncomfortable radicalism of Velma, touchingly portrayed by the hypnotizing Kuhoo Verma (Berkeley Rep’s Monsoon Wedding), and her late arrival to the gathering, that beacons forth the core truth and complacency and complicity of the dynamic. In her “Beautiful” (O. THE FOOL), courtesy of the fine work overall of music supervisor and director, Or Matias (Public’s First Daughter Suite), and Velma’s wired rant is where the wonder of small things flourish. Octet lays the groundwork of our internalized struggle and displays it with wise constructions. The simpleness of this musical has one of the more important messages that the world seems to be desperate to hear and learn. That is, if we can only look up from our phones or turn them to silent, and really, one can only shake their head in bewilderment when that one phone (and there is always at least one) pings or rings during this important tale. How have we gotten here? and how can we dig ourself out of this coding emergency and stop with the “click, swipe, fuck“? I guess we just need to look as deep into our souls as these fantastic members of this Octet.