Many folks call it scrolling. It can also be called doom-scrolling. Surfing, scanning, you can call it anything you want, because whatever it’s called, it’s never enough. I need some connection. How about a date? Gimme some of that trollin’, message board toxicity. How about some scores for all the big games? I need to pause my message board scrap to learn about the history of pickles. Give it all to me, now! Don’t forget about those tabs – oh, so many tabs.
Information is at our fingertips 24/7, and if some insightful commentary on the subject comes at you in a luscious, eight-part harmony while the damn phone is mercifully turned off, all the better.
There is no way around this simple fact – “Octet,” now playing at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, is exultingly beautiful, and in some offbeat ways, disconcerting. It’s easy to imagine that many audience folks might be thinking to themselves, “Do I do that? I think I do that. It’s probably not good that I do that.”
The connective tissue of the celestial chamber musical, a piece written by Tony-winning composer Dave Malloy (Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812) is that the group named “Friends of Saul” gather in a church basement, where they declare their addiction firmly, but with plenty of reservation. Each of the public declarations are met with a quick dotting of a pitch pipe and a whirling set of tight harmonies, which range from wildly funny to empathetically melancholy. The narrative is assisted mightily by lots of delightful tricks on a charming set crafted by co-scenic designers Amy Rubin and Brittany Vasta, an area that makes one recall the dueling scents of mildew and incense.
There is plenty of wild engagement that comes from the group, referencing tarot cards and games with candy as an addictive force. Director Annie Tippe and music director Or Matias have a delightfully unified piece that stays tight, loaded with plenty of astute observations that hit particularly sharp in a world where the isolation of the pandemic is trending towards history.
There is an extreme benevolence that permeates the room of wandering souls, folks who probably use an iPad with the left hand and their phone in the right hand, as they sit in front of their laptops wishing for a third hand. Seven of the folks are present at the beginning of the meetup, but an eighth member wanders in late with a hint of morose mystery. That would be Velma (Kuhoo Verma, “Plan B” on Hulu), who is comfortable leaning back and engaging everyone collectively, but interestingly has the only pure solo the show offers.
What stuns mightily in the production is the intricacy of the flavorsome harmonies. Take the song “Glow,” a tune by title that implies something much more than the devastation that exists when luminous love is replaced by the “stale pale glow” of artificiality.
“It’d be fine if we were kids with flashlights, telling each other our secrets in our linen cave.” The joys of discovery are a distant memory, the pleasures of flesh replaced with secrets of the universe unlocked in high definition gleam.
Scrolling habits exist differently for everyone. In the case of Jessica, aka “White Woman Goes Crazy,” (Margo Seibert) she prefers ego surfing in a specific pattern that goes something like “click, swipe, fuck, refresh.”
“Every voice is equal – every voice gets in,” bemoans Jessica, making a very salient point.
While there is so much complexity in the harmonious strains of the vociferously talented cast, one of the most poignant moments rests with Velma. In this moment, it is just her voice as she affirms what is sometimes the hardest thing to do in the battlefield of the youthful online grab for stature and acceptance. In a world where young folks clamor for a fantasy life to match the manufactured Instagram one that lives within the screens they stare into, it’s difficult to witness a yearning that never ends. For a young girl to state that she is, in fact, beautiful, is incredibly critical. Just a girl, and her heavenly set of pipes that offer the purest of timbres, the most joyous of sounds.
The internet and all the ways to access information has incredibly great benefits for our societal needs. Buying tickets, booking flights and finding like-minded communities for a variety of interests gives some great texture to our lives. But there is a laundry list of things that make all this connection extremely problematic.
Thankfully, we still have pursuits like theatre that actively discourages its audience from using a screen while the show is in progress. Hopefully the folks on the stage can get to a play sometime and find out how fulfilling this is for themselves. I would highly recommend that they go see “Octet.” Maybe Saul could join them.
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
Berkeley Repertory Theatre presents “Octet”
Written by Dave Malloy
Directed by Annie Tippe
The Word: The most luscious harmonies help tell a story that hits close to home for those of us who are deep in the world of screen time.
Through May 29
Running time: 100 minutes, no intermission
Peet’s Theatre at Berkeley Rep
2025 Addison St. Berkeley, CA
Tickets range from $29 – $159
For tickets, call (510) 647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org