by Carol Rocamora
A play about technology – with nary a trace of it?
Leave it to the talented, unpredictable Dave Malloy to come up with a surprising new topic and an arresting new theatrical form to fit it. After all, he’s the one who compressed Tolstoy’s massive War and Peace into a Broadway extravaganza called Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812. He also authored Prelude, on the unlikely topic of Rachmaninoff’s writer’s bloc, taking place in the composer’s mind.
And now this immensely imaginative author/composer has made a musical out of the most unlikely topic –the internet, and our addiction to it.
Dave Malloy’s Octet, now playing at Signature Theatre Center, is a minor theatrical miracle. With nothing on stage but eight actor/singers (and a few folding chairs), Malloy creates a unique a cappella chamber opera – to dramatize the struggle of human identity against technology.
The unlikely scene is a church basement. Eight members of a group called “Friends of Saul,” an addiction support group, have gathered for their weekly meeting to share their stories of enslavement to the internet. It’s the most original idea of the theatre season – a “chorus line” of internet addicts, each singing their songs and telling their tales.
Ingeniously staged by Annie Tippe, this talented ensemble of singers have only their beautiful voices, their pitch pipes, and (of course) Malloy’s marvelous score at their disposal. One by one, we hear their “arias” of internet dependency – recreational, informational, social, sexual, financial – that have swallowed them through the looking glass (aka the computer screen). Henry (Alex Gibson) is obsessed with “candy-related internet games; while Karly (Kim Blanck) sings about online dating and sex in “Solo” alongside her husband Ed (Adam Bashian). Paula (Starr Busby) and her husband lie in bed at night, isolated before separate screens, facing separate “stale, pale glows.” Down they all go, through a dark, endless tunnel of obsession, anxiety, depression, isolation, and paranoia. Yes, Velma (Kuhoo Verma) may have found love – but it’s with a unseen stranger on the other side of the world. (The rest of the uniformly excellent cast – Justin Gregory Lopez, Margo Siebert – also have their moments.)
It’s an immensely entertaining show – that is, if it weren’t so unsettling. In one of the culminating arias, Marvin (J. D. Mollison) reports of hearing God on the internet. Soon everyone hears “Him” – although, in their shared experience, God is a “Her” – an eleven year old girl in a mermaid costume, dressed to disarm rather than frighten. Even the scene that follows – a tea ceremony meant to celebrate “the wonder of small things,” as group leader Paula explains – doesn’t soothe our own anxieties. Who is Saul (the group’s namesake), anyway? Is he a “no-show,” like Beckett’s Godot? And what does his absence ultimately mean? Is it a warning? As one of the characters says, “We are in trouble!”
Only the final hymn of this beautifully tuned ensemble, singing Malloy’s ultra-modern, mellifluous score, lifts us up. There’s solace to be found, after all, in the most simple of solutions – human harmony. It’s a healing new-age musical for our troubled times.
Photos: Joan Marcus
Octet, music, lyrics, book and vocal arrangements by Dave Malloy, directed by Annie Tippe, at Pershing Square Signature Center through June 16.