Composer and lyricist Dave Malloy is no stranger to the experimental. His compositions and lyrics frequently interrogate the nastiness of the soul, as if you’re peering down a cliff. His previous works, Natasha, Pierre & The Great Comet of 1812 and Preludes, feature his stream-of-consciousness confessional flow of lyricism. Now comes Malloy’s Octet, lead by a chamber choir. Listen to “Monster” in Octet, a death-march elegy that sounds like you’re digesting in the belly of a monster–in this case, the shapeless monster of the Internet.
Octet’s chamber choir features Adam Bashian, Kim Blanck, Starr Busby, Alex Gibson, Justin Gregory Lopez, J.D. Mollison, Margo Seibert, and Kuhoo Verma all representing archetypical addicts in a support group. They bear their souls about their Internet addiction through Malloy’s music. Their opening hymn begins with idyllic serenity, focusing on an image of nature: a forest. Then, the serenity dissolves and it turns out there’re talking about the screensaver of a forest. The addicts lament their dependency on their screens, lost relationships (sometimes caused by porn screwing up their expectations), candy-related games, and troll debates. The Internet infatuation is a phenomenon so abstract it could only be described through Malloy’s lyrical contemplations—“click, click, refresh, refresh,” the chorus chimes.
Its archetyping—from attention-seekers to “rational” debaters, to social justice activists—has its advantages by rendering them as general funhouse mirrors onto which we can easily project our insecurities. The disadvantage is that its players border between operating as concepts to laugh at and existing as recognizable humans to empathize with. Still, the octet sways in their confessions, spewing out their obsessions while suggesting quirks beyond their conceptual shells. Depending on what angle your seat faces in the thrust staging, watch out for some delicious expressions and mannerisms simmering within each of the players.
Coming in, I was aware that Malloy mashed together inspiration from internet and scientific debates, religious text, and Sufi poetry, and the Playbill lists other influences: from Richard Dawkins’s The God Delusion, Ready Player One, and a Black Mirror episode to Tarot cards and more. Tempting as it may be, the show never vents about big-name platforms like Twitter, Facebook, YouTube, or Tinder, but it is very easy to fill any of those names in the blanks. Only The Matrix receives an explicit shout-out on stage. Candy Crush itself is never uttered when Henry sings about his fondness for games with candy in a number that rakes in the laughs while grazing the subject of self-disgust.
Malloy’s score plucks at the expressional impulses and tics of desire as music grounds its disturbed characters and their sentiments fluctuate from bliss to frustration to shame. The tone and lyrics speaks true to the toxicity of Internet spaces. Octet drenches itself in the psychedelic without overstepping its visual restraints. The immersive touch in the three-sided staging does wonders to evoke a boxed-in social space. A barrage of flyers line the hallway when you walk in, as they would in any recreational center. It even has a table of complimentary coffee, cough drops, and pamphlets with the group’s creed, which contains one of the recited gut-punches: “Every second that I am unaware of time is a second I am giving over to death.”
Annie Tippe’s direction erupts as the a cappella singers break from their stagnant support group circle and inhabit the space in chaotic scatterings. Christopher Bowser’s lighting design is coy at times, such as when floor vents reveal themselves as light sources. Technological flourishes buzz their way into the space during the rib-cracking “Little God” sequence where the beleaguered atheistic Marvin testifies that God contacted him through technology.
If you’re a screen user, like almost all of us are, Octet won’t cure you of screen obsession, but it will guilt-trip any second you stare at the screen after the show. Most can’t ever quit the Wifi world, for better or for worse. Sometimes life is about contemplating the abyss of the net as you’re still falling into it.