Berkeley Rep’s melodic musical ‘Octet’ explores the cacophony of the internet

Dave Malloy’s ingenious a capella chamber opera about an internet addict support group pierces a stake into the heart of the net, song by glorious song.

The West Coast premiere of Dave Malloy’s Octet, directed by Annie Tippe. Front row, left to right: Justin Gregory Lopez (Toby), Margo Seibert (Jessica) and Kim Blanck (Karly). Middle row: Kuhoo Verma (Velma), J.D. Mollison (Marvin) and Isabel Santiago (Paula). Back row: Adam Bashian (Ed) and Alex Gibson (Henry). Credit: Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

The brilliant musical talent Dave Malloy (Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812) realized a few years ago that he was spending too much time on the internet. So, he decided to write a show about it (music, lyrics, book, and vocal arrangement). And the result is Octet, a creative, contemporary, melodic, funny, and sad a capella chamber opera for eight voices, which pierces a stake into the heart of the net, song by glorious song. I was so entranced with Octet that I wished there were more than 90 minutes of it to enjoy.

Octet, Berkeley Rep, 2025 Addison St., through May 29

In Octet, eight internet addicts meet in a weekly support group to share their dependencies and obsessions. Each super-talented participant testifies through song, with accompaniment by the others. The lyrics are ingenious and extensive, such that reading them online is helpful before the performance and a pleasure afterward. And although this is primarily a musical production, with Annie Tippe’s able direction, there is wonderfully dynamic acting and stage direction to keep things moving. 

Each support group member has become victim of a different slice of the internet’s special hell. There’s Jessica (Margo Seibert), whose life was ruined by a “white woman goes crazy” video that became a meme. Poor Henry (Alex Gibson) can’t stop playing Candy Crush and goes unwashed for days. In the song Solo, Karly (Kim Blanck) and Ed (Adam Bashian) sing about the inhumane and inhuman single life experienced through dating apps. And Velma (Kuhoo Verma) sings a beautiful solo, appropriately titled Beautiful, that left the audience speechless.

Margo Seibert (Jessica). Credit: Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

The perfect setting for Octet is the shabby church basement of the E. Goostman Faith Center, with detritus including an original Macintosh and a copy of an old Judy Collins Songbook arranged smartly by co-scenic designers Amy Rubin and Brittany Vasta. Left uncertain are references to the mysterious, unseen Saul, who apparently started the group and may have some supernatural or super-computer talents.

This West Coast premiere of Octet follows its world premiere at New York’s Signature Theatre Company, where three-time Tony Award nominee Dave Malloy is resident playwright.

Octet runs through May 29. It’s 90 minutes, with no intermission. Proof of vaccination and mask-wearing are required. Tickets, $29-$159, subject to change, can be purchased online on the Berkeley Rep website or by phone at 510-647-2949.

‘Octet’ playwright Dave Malloy warns against ‘mindless repetitive activities’

Malloy is a fabulous talent, and I had fun interviewing him for Berkeleyside earlier this month. The quotes below have been edited for clarity and length.

On the human voice:

I was the stereotypical music nerd in my Lakewood, Ohio, high school. I was in the marching band, the barbershop quartet, the jazz band. I was in so many vocal groups — the chamber choir, the symphonic choir, jazz choir and barbershop quartet. I was immersing myself in music.

I love writing for the human voice. It’s my favorite instrument. Because of my high school experience, I was exposed to so many kinds of singing. When I started Octet, about a 12-step meeting like an AA meeting in a church basement, of course there couldn’t be a band in the corner. These eight people are coming together to share their stories and to be vulnerable with each other. One of the things about the group is that they are anonymous. The music had to come from these eight people coming together. When I realized that, I thought ‘This is great.’ It was such fun for me as a composer to indulge in different vocal styles that I’ve loved over the years.

On the toxicity of the internet:

I realized that I was spending too much time on my phone. A lot of people were talking about the feeling of mindlessly looking at screens and scrolling all the time and playing video games.

The doorway into it for me was I got involved in following intelligent design debates online for some reason — I got obsessed looking at science forums — and watching arguments between creationists and scientists. The way that the discourse unraveled online I found that fascinating. There is a piece of Octet that takes that as a starting place. From there I went off into how damaging and toxic discourse online can be for people in general.

I became a big video game addict. During COVID time, I played World of Warcraft socially with friends. I had a Candy Crush addiction.

I’m a junkie for the Saturday New York Times puzzle, Wordle and the Spelling Bee. So fun. Crosswords are OK. They are completable. One per day and you’re done.

But Candy Crush and Cookie Clicker have no end and you can play them for the rest of your life. The mindless repetitive activities are dangerous.

Longtime East Bay resident Emily S. Mendel has been Berkeleyside’s freelance theater and art critic since 2012.