Dave Malloy’s gorgeous a cappella chamber choir musical, Octet, a world-premiere, is a story about technology and those enraptured by it, with the burnished glow of spirituality living in its hymns and songs. The composer-writer’s deft touch is the most humane way to understand the bifurcation of human connection in the modern age: on one side that which is communicated by blue light and wireless technology, and on the other, that age-old body and soul experience, face-to-face contact.
The audience enters the corridor of a rec center the moment they walk into Signature Theatre’s Linney Theater. There are fliers plastered on the walls and a daily schedule of the center’s events. Upon entrance, one is greeted with a wash of beige and brown tones. A sense of the dilapidated and mundane is immediate. This carefully detailed set was scenically designed by Amy Rubin and Brittany Vasta.
There’s a little scene that happens pre-show. An actor shows up to sit in one of the chairs in the circle, center stage, only to anxiously get up to check her phone by the coffee maker before putting it away to return to her seat. This small action, a habit, suggests the rhythm of waiting that happens to many of us, perhaps even as we sit in the theater waiting for the show to start. We learn soon enough that this is a meeting of addicts to technology, an addiction that takes many forms as the songs tell us: viral videos, games, dating apps, messaging, pornography, and Internet rabbit holes.
The songs build from the humorous to more seriously inflected think pieces on what technology has done to our lives and our psyches. The first solo piece is about a viral video and the humiliation that follows but the voyeuristic obsession we have with the downfall is entertaining. Next comes a song about Candy Crush and games like it. Its light tone signals an escapist impulse from the melancholy. “Fugue State” is an incisive group song about the way the soul can feed on technology but in doing so feeds an inner monstrosity inside all of us. This monstrosity is what partakes in online outrage culture or funds self-obsession on the internet.
The topic of the soul becomes much more prevalent in part two of the musical. There’s a song about a dating app addiction between a man and woman that takes a musically unexpected turn. The spirituality in the show, positing a new religion in our lives, is found in the song “Little God” which functions like a fable from a religious text. A scientist hears the voice of God through his communication devices, and then watches as his phone is turned into a fish. In terms of miracles, this is as much as you’d expect a God to perform in the present. There’s something zany about this, imagining the technologically savvy scientists, wry and knowing, finding their answers sent up by a higher being. In a world where technology can offer omniscience to mortals, what constitutes a miracle or a higher power? And yet, there is a creator, the fable suggests. Some stories repeat.
The forest in the first hymn, which sets up a folklore, threads through the songs until the last hymn, which is about being in the fields — a passage about the journeys we go through and the pastures we find. The show ends on a note of hope. Human connection isn’t dead in spite of the forest of technology that separates us from each other. While the group onstage takes a hallucinogenic to reset their limbic state, we, the audience, sit in quiet communion. We had our limbic state reset through the music, an art form for the senses.
The thrust staging that allows the audience to envelop the stage implicates us all as addicts. The confessions onstage feel familiar and observed, yet they heighten the extraordinariness in the ordinary living. Some beautiful singing has been unleashed in the most drab of places. The sum of the parts arrive at something primal within us, the thing that allowed us to make a civilization, a connection to our god-given instruments: bodily presence and the human voice.
Octet, a chamber choir musical written and composed by Dave Malloy and directed by Annie Tippe, is running at Signature Theatre (480 West 42nd Street, Midtown, Manhattan) through June 16th.