Review of Signature Theatre's Octet by Dave Malloy

  • Our critic's rating:
    Date:
    May 20, 2019
    Review by:

    Octet, the newest work by Dave Malloy (Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812, and Ghost Quartet) at the Pershing Square Signature Center is part chorale, part drama, part magic. It transcends form, creating a new, pertinent, relevant, humorous, and relatable way of storytelling.

    The piece begins before you even enter the theater. The word “octet” itself contains a double meaning, encapsulating both a description of technology (network protocol parameters, or another way to describe bytes), as well as the eight person “chorus” of the piece. Here, the chorus may also be viewed in a bilateral fashion, both as a church choir and the makeup of the individual testimonials that we hear throughout the piece, but also as the originating Greek chorus “everyman,” showing society who we are ourselves and serving as an aperture into our own demons and relationship with the “monster” of everyday technology.

    The scenic design by co-designers Amy Rubin and Brittany Vasta encompasses the full space. Upon entering, audience members walk past a wall of fliers and a message board, and enter into an old church community center, complete with flickering fluorescents, floor vents, coffee machine and a bookshelf of board games. Lighting designer Christopher Bowser utilizes every item in the space for design, transforming Rubin and Vista’s community center into the magical and surreal places within the minds of the support group members.

    The piece itself feels germane to the world we live in today. The eight ensemble members are gathered in this community room and repeat the familiar phrase “...and I am an addict,” before jumping into a confession about their relationship with technology, social media, and all the ups and downs accompanied therein. One would be remiss to not see themselves reflected in at least one of the confessor’s performances. The testimonies are bookended by a series of hymns or healing moments in which the verse leads the audience through a walk in the forest, or a step away from technology and internet communication.

    The ensemble of the piece was spectacular. Each member of the octet received a moment to distinguish themselves from the rest of the ensemble and talk about what brought them to the support group environment, singing a capella while being supported only by the voices of their support group cohorts. Made up of a series of resigned and manic addicts singing healing harmonies, their voices blended and unified in support of the individualism and distinction of the confessor.

    On your program, one sees a picture of the tarot deck fool holding an iPhone. The fool represents both inexperience and faith in the future, believing in the universe. In this way, Octet is less of a cautionary tale of the troubles of using social media, although this is a general effect of the piece, but an exploration of the new terrain that we find ourselves in, our struggle to contend with this new beginning, and an endeavor to find a balance through community and empathy.

    (Photo by Joan Marcus)

    "Hi, my name is Ben, and I’m an internet addict. Since the odds are that you are, too — you are living in the 21st century, right? — let me tell you about this wonderful new support group I’ve discovered. It meets in what feels like every church basement you’ve ever seen, and its official membership is limited to eight, for reasons that feel a little creepy. But trust me when I tell you that if you sit in on one of its sessions, you’ll feel reassured, alarmed, enlightened and truly thrilled by what you hear. If you choose not to attend, you will be missing what promises to be the most original and topical musical of the year."
    Ben Brantley for New York Times

    "Octet is a thoughtful and thought-provoking exercise, directed with theatrical flourish by Annie Tippe and performed with consummate craft and musicianship by the eight-member cast."
    Thom Geier for The Wrap

    "You'll think twice before reflexively checking your cellphone upon leaving the new musical by Dave Malloy. The latest work from the acclaimed, prolific composer responsible for such musicals as Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812Ghost Quartet and Preludes, among others, concerns society's ever-growing addiction to the internet and social media. Octet, for which he wrote the book, lyrics, music and vocal arrangements, is a thoughtful, if simultaneously overstuffed and underdramatized, exploration of an issue that couldn't be more relevant."
    Frank Scheck for Hollywood Reporter