Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s ‘Octet’ is stunning, humorous harmony

photo of octet play
Kevin Berne/Courtesy

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 “Welcome to E. Goostman Faith Center. I’m glad you’re here,” the crew greeted audience members as they trickled into the theater.

On the evening of April 27, the Berkeley Repertory Theatre transformed into the E. Goostman Faith Center, complete with green carpeted floors, stained glass windows and old stereos playing mid-century tunes. Encouraged to explore the set before the show began, audience members were fully immersed in the theatrical atmosphere.

“Octet” is three-time Tony Award nominee Dave Malloy’s latest musical, premiering on the West Coast. The play follows eight individuals who meet at a community center and form a support group for their shared addiction: the internet. These characters could not be more different from each other in appearance and experience. However, they find common ground in how their addictions have changed the trajectory of their lives forever. 

As the lights dimmed and the actors took their places, a hush fell across the room and the show began. Holy harmony rang in the air as the cast stood in a circle and sang, their voices clear and strong. “The Forest” introduced the audience to the play’s eight characters, the hymn glorious in its acapella virtuosity.

Sharing their stories with each other and the audience through song, the actors stunned in their respective solos. Henry (Alex Gibson) sang of his comical gaming addiction, humorous in his strong allusions to the ubiquitous Candy Crush. Singing about his internet-induced radicalization, Toby (Justin Lopez) delivered a dramatic and profound performance. Through it all, each character yearned for empathy and true relationships.

Masterful storytelling wove its way through each actor’s performance of the play’s original tracks. Numbers started raw and acoustic but built to an extraordinary climax, and solos were layered with distinct voice warps and special effects that immersed the audience in the pinnacle of the narrative. The storyline beautifully explored the themes of desperation and hope, every person on stage and in the audience longing for meaning and connection in this big, bad, digital world. 

While each individual actor managed to mesmerize the crowd, the cast became a true force of nature when joined together in song. The ensemble’s chemistry was a clear agent in the play’s success. From becoming semi-hostile strangers to almost friends, the characters enraptured the theater with their natural rapport and faultless comedic timing, keeping the audience thoroughly engaged.

It would be remiss not to acknowledge the show’s standout performer, the charming Kuhoo Verma as Velma. Velma started as an awkward and eccentric teenager, timid as she bumbled into the meeting late and apologetic. As each character shone with candid expression, Velma began to shed her shyness. 

“Beautiful” narrated Velma’s discovery of self-worth amidst the destructive powers of the internet. This solo was Verma’s champion the way the Sistine Chapel is Michelangelo’s magnum opus. Hushed by pure wonder, the audience hung onto every note, every word and every breath. A delightful symphony of sadness, sincerity and hope, “Beautiful” allowed Verma to explore the emotions of growing pains in a stunningly endearing performance.  

“Octet” concluded with “The Field,” a heart-wrenching number about the complexities of being a flawed human being. “Beyond right and wrong, there is a field, I will meet you there,” sang the cast in a moving epilogue.

As the cast took their bows, there was a flurry of movement within the audience. No one in the crowd stayed seated as the cast of Octet received a well-deserved standing ovation. Cast members were even moved to tears as the audience cheered, completely roused by the superb story of humanity and connection that is “Octet.”

Contact Vicky Chong at [email protected].