Octet at Berkeley Rep is a revelation

Octet 2
In Berkeley Rep’s production of Octet, Alex Gibson (center) is Henry, surrounded by (from left) Adam Bashian as Ed, Margo Seibert as Jessica, J.D. Mollison as Marvin, Kuhoo Verma as Velma, Isabel Santiago as Paula, Justin Gregory Lopez as Toby and Kim Blanck as Karly. BELOW: The cast of Octet in the West Coast premiere of Dave Malloy’s astonishing theater piece, directed by Annie Tippe. Photos by Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre

Writer/composer Dave Malloy calls his Octet a “chamber choir musical,” and that’s certainly an apt description of this one-act show featuring eight performers and a shimmering a cappella score. But an even better description of Octet might be a “revelation” or maybe even a “miracle.”

Commissioned by New York’s Signature Theatre, who premiered the work in 2019, Octet is now on stage at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Peet’s Theatre, and it is (and probably was and will likely remain) the right show at the right time. As long as we’re isolated, anxiety-ridden or damaged, this show will have something to say (or perhaps sing is the better word) to us.

There’s a beautiful simplicity to Octet, which is interesting because the show traffics in the internecine complexities of our modern world, more specifically, with the horrors of the Internet: the isolation, the addictions, the pornography, the self-righteousness, the polarization, the anonymity, the cruelty, the fraud…and the list just goes on and on.

The simplicity comes in the show’s form: eight people gather for a 90-minute support group meeting in a faith center community room. The group, created by an enigmatic figure named Saul, is patterned after a 12-step program but with eight guiding principles and designed for people in recovery from multitudinous online damage. Perhaps the most distinctive aspect of this program is that its therapy takes the form of choral singing. Armed with their pitch pipes, group members sing some hymns (of Malloy’s creation, of course, and very specific to the 21st century), but when it comes time for them to share their stories, these are also presented in song.

Octet 1

The idea seems to be that this group embodies the exact opposite of the trauma suffered by its participants. By singing together, they are physically (through voice), mentally and emotionally connected in a way rivaled only by sex. Their octet is a living, creative organism that can only exist when they are together, and the mind-blowing beauty of what they create is matched only by the emotional wallop of what they’re actually telling each other (and us) about what they’ve suffered and how they’re surviving and evolving.

In addition to his glorious score, Malloy’s script also has its own power. There are familiar sitcom rhythms to the humor, but that’s just one of the ways Malloy pulls us in and calms us down before taking us places we could never have expected. There’s real wit here (especially in some of the lyrics), and it’s easy to relate to pretty much everything being discussed, which is why so much of it is at once funny and terrifying. There’s also a level of mysticism at work here – the Tarot factors in, as does a chatbot named Eugene Goostman that apparently fooled people into thinking it was human.

Local audiences have the benefit of seeing most of the original New York Octet cast reprising their roles, along with most of the creative team headed by director Annie Tippe. There’s not a false moment among the pitch-perfect actors, and the verisimilitude of the situation – the details in the set by Amy Rubin and Brittany Vasta are fascinating – only amplifies the otherworldly places the music takes us (Malloy did the vocal arrangements, which are like a language unto themselves, and Or Matias is the sterling music supervisor and music director).

Each of the actors gets a moment to shine, but, by design, the show’s undeniable power comes from all the voices. It’s hard to imagine anyone better in these roles than Adam Bashian, Kim Blanck, Alex Gibson, Justin Gregory Lopez, J.D. Mollison, Isabel Santiago, Margo Seibert and Kuhoo Verma. We don’t know all that much about their characters, but we know enough to see ourselves and the people around us in them, and if it feels like they are working to be better and do better, so can we. Somehow, through the magic of experiencing something profound together, the octet expands to include the audience.

In the hours since I left Berkeley Rep, the show has continued to vibrate in me, and I haven’t interacted with a screen without thinking about it and about how ill equipped we have been to keep up with the rush of technological advances and all that entails (and the effect on our brains and our attention spans and our relationships with others). I can’t sing, but that doesn’t mean I don’t feel a very strong urge to return to that community room as one of the Friends of Saul.

Octet is just astonishing. It is one of those theater experiences that makes good on the promise of the art form – the kind of experience that keeps you going to show after show after show because you know this kind of transcendence is possible every time you step into a theater.

Dave Malloy’s Octet continues through May 29 in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Peet’s Theatre, 2025 Addison St., Berkeley. Tickets are $29-$159, subject to change. Visit berkeleyrep.org or call 510-647-2949.

Curran brilliance continues with stunning Ghost Quartet

Ghost Quartet 1
The performers of Ghost Quartet are, from left, Brittain Ashford, Gelsey Bell, Dave Malloy and Brent Arnold. The play/concert/musical/event continues through Oct. 31 at the Curran Theatre as part of the Curran: Under Construction Series. Below: Composer/performer Malloy at work. Photos courtesy of the Curran Theatre

Before I rhapsodize about the incredible Ghost Quartet now at the Curran Theatre as part of the Curran: Under Construction series, can I just say how extraordinary this series has been so far? This is the third show following The Events (review here) and The Object Lesson (review here), and so far, producer Carole Shorenstein Hays is batting a million (I don’t know sports).

At this point, Hays’ curatorial skills have proven so wonderful I’d show up anywhere she told me was worthwhile. At some point in this ongoing series of shows set entirely – audience and all – on the stage of the Curran while it undergoes refurbishment, there will likely be a show that doesn’t blow my mind, but I have no doubt it will at the very least be interesting and worthwhile.

The experience of being on the stage, which has been creatively reconfigured for each show, is surprisingly cozy and intimate – the world’s nicest black box theater. Coming through the stage door at the side alley is exciting, and the staff is always welcoming. Hays is a brilliant producer, but I can’t imagine this impeccably produced series is making loads of money, so I think about this series as her gift to San Francisco audiences. For that we should be incredibly grateful.

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Ghost Quartet heralds the return of Dave Malloy, who made a strong impression when he was a Bay Area resident working with Banana Bag & Bodice on projects like Shotgun Players’ Beowulf – A Thousand Years of Baggage. He decamped to Brooklyn nearly a decade ago and in the interim has produced a major work of genius, the unconventional War and Peace musical Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812.

With Ghost Quartet, which was developed at Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s Ground Floor, he’s working in chamber mode, but his fervent intellect, passion for literary mash-up and melodic gifts are out in full force. the audience is seated on three sides of a performance area covered in Persian carpets. The stage’s curtain is up, so the empty Curran auditorium is on full view, with the lowered chandelier becoming sort of a character in the 90-minute piece (all the design is by Christopher Bowser, and it’s low-key spectacular).

Malloy on keyboards and Brent Arnold on cello (and other marvelous stringed instruments) are situated on opposite sides of the center-facing section of audience, while Brittain Ashford and Gelsey Bell on vocals and various harps and things, face forward with their backs to the open auditorium. The central playing area isn’t much used, which means the music surrounds you and the theatrical aspect feels less presentational and more like an active experience of being told an extraordinary story.

So what exactly is Ghost Quartet? I can’t say I got it all, exactly. There’s a multi-layered story thickly interwoven with threads made of Poe’s The Fall of the House of Usher and of the New York Post’s infamous cover photo of a man about to be killed by an oncoming subway train. There are fairy tales (with a nod to Sondheim and Lapine’s Into the Woods) and murders and ghosts and reincarnations and tributes to Thelonious Monk and a conjuring of Arabian Nights. It doesn’t all completely make sense, yet in the moment, amid the music and the performances and the cozy atmosphere and the way the story circles back on itself, it all makes perfect sense somehow.

The evening is broken into four “sides” (as in record albums), and just before we get to Side 3, the audience gets to participate in one of the recurring themes: whiskey (or section got Evan Williams Kentucky bourbon and my fellow audience members were generous with their pours). Just when the night couldn’t get any better – WHISKEY! – the lights go out, and the story unfolds in the dark. I heard some people got uncomfortable in the darkness (ghost stories win), but I loved it. I could have listened to the rest of the show in the dark and been ecstatically happy if they’d started it over again at the end.

But the lights do come back on, and the show comes to its thrilling, interactive conclusion that is sweet and eerie at the same time. The song is the traditional murder ballad “The Wind & Rain” slightly tweaked by Malloy, and it’s hard to imagine a more stirring finale.

These four performers are astonishing. Everybody sings and plays, but the bulk of the dramatic work is handled by Ashford and Bell. They’re so good (and so, for that matter, are Arnold and Malloy) that even when things don’t entirely make sense or you miss a lyric here and there, it doesn’t matter. You’re in good hands, and these performers will deliver you exactly where they want you to go – and that place is likely to blow your mind in the best possible way.

[bonus videos]
Enjoy “Any Kind of Dead Person,” one of the livelier numbers from Ghost Quartet and “Starchild,” one of the most beautiful.


Dave Malloy’s Ghost Quartet continues through Oct. 31 as part of the Curran: Under Construction series at the Curran Theatre, 445 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $25-$50. Visit www.sfcurran.com.

Review: `Vera Wilde’

Opened Sept. 19, 2008 at the Ashby Stage


Sean Owens (center) is Ocar Wilde in Shotgun Players’ production of Vera Wilde, a musical play by Chris Jeffries. Owens is flanked by (from left) Danielle Levin, Edward Brauer and Tyler Kent. Photos by Jessica Palopoli


Shotgun’s revolution in Russian, Irish, musical stripes

Oscar Wilde’s first play, you may be surprised to know, was not some clever, quippy piece of comic fluff. The aspiring young playwright tackled as his subject a young Russian woman named Vera Zasulich, who, in a fit of revolutionary pique, shot the St. Petersburg chief of police in protest of his treatment of her comrades in prison.

Vera freely admitted to the crime and wanted to go on trial to spread the word about why she committed an act of violence and raise awareness about the government’s shady dealings with outspoken citizens and the use of torture in prison.

The strategy worked. Vera’s case received national attention, and the jury acquitted her of the crime she actually committed.

Inspired by the young woman’s revolutionary verve, and holding the opinion that “agitators are a set of interfering, meddling people, who come down to some perfectly contented class of the community and sow the seeds of discontent, (which is) why agitators are so absolutely necessary,” Wilde wrote a play called Vera; or, The Nihilists. Wilde biographer Richard Ellmann describes “Vera” as “a wretched play.”

The play’s London premiere in 1881 was ultimately canceled because a play about the attempted assassination of the Russian Czar (Wilde elevated Vera’s target from police chief to big cheese) was not looked upon favorably in view of two actual assassinations: of Czar Alexander II and of U.S. President Garfield.

Still, Wilde did manage to get the play produced in New York, with a woman named Marie Prescott in the title role. Several newspapers proclaimed the play’s brilliance while the New York Times stated Wilde was “very much of a charlatan and wholly an amateur” and called the play “valueless.”

And so ends the chapter of Vera Zasulich in the life of Oscar Wilde…until now.

In 2002 Chris Jeffries premiered, of all things, a musical about the intersection of Vera Zasulich and Oscar Wilde at Seattle’s Empty Space Theatre called Vera Wilde, and now Shotgun Players is producing this “musical play” for which Jeffries wrote book, music and lyrics.

Jeffries seems hesitant to call Vera Wilde a musical because the word “musical” indicates frivolity, silliness and lack of credibility for serious subject matter. But he shouldn’t be so wary. His musical is intelligent, clever and bold with an appealing score and some standout songs.

The notion of mining the intersection between Vera and Oscar is an intriguing one, though their parallels dissipate after Act 1, which goes to some lengths to depict how their various trials – hers for attempted murder, his for “gross indecency” with young men – were sensational and, in their own ways, revolutionary.

Some confusion arises in director Maya Gurantz’s production as Vera’s timeline proceeds forward (from notoriety to obscurity) and Wilde’s proceeds backward (from post-prison shame and disgrace to talk of the town). Seemingly, when the two intersect the play should find its nexus of power, but that is not the case. The play is at its best during the parallel trial scenes of Act 1 and loses focus in Act 2 as Vera, in exile, becomes a forgotten revolutionary who, if we are to believe Jeffries, was eclipsed by her lover, Lenin, while Wilde emerges as London’s newest Irish toy – push a button on his overstuffed vest and a print-worthy epigram pops out. “I am the future come to laugh at your pretensions,” he says at one point.

Jeffries’ score (beautifully orchestrated by musical director Dave Malloy) is played by a superb quartet: Brendan West on banjo, Andre Nigoghossian on guitar, Hillary Overberg on violin and Simon Hanes on bass. The sound runs from Hot Club jazz to Jesus Christ Superstar anthem with many stops in between.

Two of the show’s best songs are the Russian peasant lament “Midnight in Russia” and a show-stopping glimpse into the disastrous American premiere of Wilde’s “Vera” called “That’s How a Show Should Go” expertly performed by Danielle Levin and Edward Brauer, members of the hard-working, three-person supporting cast (which also includes sweet-voiced Tyler Kent).

Alexandra Creighton as Vera and Sean Owens as Oscar both have moments of connection—especially in their trial scenes — but they struggle with the score, and there were significant pitch problems at Friday’s opening-night performance.

Vera Wilde is a wild idea, and the issues of an oppressive government vilifying the outspoken and taking advantage of terrorist acts to create a fear-driven police state are certainly resonant. This Shotgun production just needs to sing in a stronger voice.

Vera Wilde continues through Oct. 26 at the Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley. Tickets are $17-$25. Call 510-841-6500 or visit www.shotgunplayers.org for information.

BONUS SHOTGUN NEWS: At opening night of Vera Wilde Shotgun artistic director Patrick Dooley released four of the five plays he’ll be doing in the 2009 season: Mark Jackson’s Faust Part 1 (May-June); Jon Tracy’s adaptation of Animal Farm (August-September in John Hinkel Park); Marcus Gardley’s musical play This World in a Woman’s Hands about the Richmond Shipyard “Rosie the Riveter” workforce (September-October); and Susannah Martin’s production of The Three Penny Opera (December-January 2010).


Review: `Ubu for President’

Opened Aug. 2 at John Hinkel Park, Berkeley

Dave Garrett is Pa Ubu (roughly translated as Father Turd) and Carla Pantoja is Ma Ubu in Shotgun Players’ rollicking summer production Ubu for President, a free play in Berkeley’s John Hinkel Park.

Crude, hilarious and free! Shotgun’s `Ubu’ wins
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Aw, pschit!

Any discussion of an Ubu play has to begin thus. When Alfred Jarry’s Ubu Roi opened in 1896, the first word of the play was, “Merdre!” (loosely translated into, “Shittr!”). And the play has been notorious ever since.

Shotgun Players, never a troupe to shy away from notoriety, takes on Ubu as its free theater in the park production this summer. Writer Josh Costello has riffed on Jarry’s Ubu plays (there were three) to come up with Ubu for President, which had its premiere on a sunny, warm Saturday afternoon in Berkeley’s beautiful John Hinkel Park.

The political comedy – more comedy than politics, thankfully – is essentially about stupid people and even stupider politics. In other words, it’s incredibly timely.

Jarry set his tale in Poland, or, as he wrote, “which is to say, nowhere.” Costello takes the Jarry-rigged wit further by setting it in a place called Fugalle (forgive the spelling if incorrect), which means anything pertaining to that country can be described as “Fuggin” as in the “Fuggin people” or the “Fuggin president.” And you know what? Gets a laugh every time.

The idea is that not-so-good King Wenceslas and his family have been on the throne for too many generations and it’s time for the people to adopt democracy and choose their own president.

So the King (Gary Grossman) decides to run. So does Pa Ubu (Dave Garrett), a retired captain of the dragoons whose favorite expression is, “By my green candle” (often followed by a grabbing of his naughty bits). The other candidates are the king’s daughter, Princess Buggerless (the extraordinarly sharp and funny Casi Maggio, above), a trippy hippie named Ming Jamal Joaquin Wounded Knee Goldstein (a pitch-perfect Sung Min Park) and an ancient man named Lesczynski (Alf Pollard).

Ubu’s ambition is ignited by his aggressive wife, Ma Ubu (Carla Pantoja), with her extra-wide hips and her extra-tall pink beehive, and his candidacy is aided by one of the king’s former henchmen, Capt. MacNure (Ryan O’Donnell), whose name, as you might imagine, is often shortened.

The Ubus are delightfully vile, constantly swearing – “Pschittabugger and buggerapschitt!” By God’s third nipple!” “Rumpleshitskin!” – and fighting. “I’m going to rip open your gut basket!” Ubu shouts at his wife. On the campaign trail, Ubu not only kisses a baby, he makes out with it before tossing the babe on its wee head, and there’s a generous supply of farting and belching to be sure.

Director Patrick Dooley only barely contains the manic energy of his cast (which also includes Marlon Deleon, Mega Guzman, Raechel Lockhart and Jordan Winer), which is as it should be. Oh, and there’s music. This is a musical…of sorts. Old tunes such as “Good King Wenceslas,” “Oh, Susannah” and “Shenandoah” are outfitted with new lyrics (by Costello and Garrett) and given spirited accompaniment by cast members on various horns and guitars (musical direction by Dave Malloy).

My favorite lyrics came in a version of “My Darling Clementine” as various forces are gathering for war. The soldiers sign “We’re the phallus for the palace” and the Princess sings, “Kill the dipstick with the lipstick.”

One of the funniest bits of shtick comes when O’Donnell and Park’s characters are chained in the dungeon and discover the only way to survive is to capture and kill rats, but the only way to do that – and then feed each other – is with their feet, which they proceed to do.

Costello’s snappy script is peppered with crudity and Shakespeare. Happily he retains Jarry’s “debraining machine,” which seems awfully au courante and makes one wonder just how many debraining machines remain in operation at the moment. Probably too many to count.

The players all seem to be having a grand time. Garrett and Pantoja lustily fill the Ubus’ pschit-stained shoes, and Maggio’s pink-loving, ultra-princessy princess is a standout. O’Donnell’s faithful sidekick is always worth watching just for the play of emotions on his face, and Park’s peace-loving, sex-loving, plant-loving hippie is so sincere he’s almost scary.

At two hours, the show is exactly long enough. And with a cast this good and a play this funny, you may just bust your gut basket.

Ubu for President continues through Sept. 2 at John Hinkel Park, Southampton Avenue off The Arlington in Berkeley. Shows are at 4 p.m. Admission is free but campaign contributions are gladly accepted. Call 510-841-6500 or visit www.shotgunplayers.org.