“Do u no wot the hum is?” ask the cryptic ads for Hum, which had its world premiere on Monday night at the Atlas. Having seen the play, I now know what “the hum” is. But I’m still figuring out what Hum is – and that’s a point in the play’s favor.
In promotional materials, Hum has been billed as an allegory “with echoes of Orwell and Asimov.” Though the play doesn’t quite live up to the works of those dystopian-fiction giants, it finds its own voice – and its own strengths – in Theater Alliance’s well-realized production.
Hum begins with a warped pastiche of the ideal marriage. Lead characters Van (Jon Reynolds) and Eva (Kennen Sisco) wake up to perform a routine that borders on mechanical, from the identical breakfast they share each morning to the chaste kiss they exchange as Van steps out the door. But their happy habits are undercut by an endless, unsettling low hum that drowns out the ability to speak.
Van and Eva are unbothered by the noise; they’ve simply replaced the need to speak to each other with notecards, bearing shorthand phrases like “Thanx” and “I <3 U 2.” But when a mysterious stranger enlists Van in a plot to destroy the machine creating the hum, making complex verbal communication possible again, the couple finds that their world has changed – and that their lives are at risk.
Hum is a small, deliberately claustrophobic play. Of the four characters, Van and Eva are named; the remaining two – “Guard” (Greg Gallagher) and “Stranger” (Nathaniel Mendez) – exist as both independent operators and diametrically-opposed symbols of Hum’s dystopian world.
But the play’s fifth “character” – a mysterious, text-displaying screen which alternates between interrogating and placating both Van and the Guard – is its most important. It is, in the most literal sense, a “god from the machine,” and there’s a clear Garden of Eden parallel at play, as Van and Eva gain knowledge but lose the simplicity and idealism of their hum-filled former lives.
As for Hum’s hum itself, which reverberates continuously through the first third of the play, particular credit must be given to Brandon Vierra’s sound design. Sound is an important element in any play, but it’s rarely as central to the plot as it is in Hum, and Vierra has found a way to make the droning noise effective without it ever becoming distracting or overwhelming the other elements of the play. The hum never fully fades into the background, but you do eventually adjust to its presence, so that you – like the play’s characters – are thrown off by the sudden silence when it’s gone.
And it’s only when the hum is gone that the play’s action can truly begin. Hum’s setting recalls dystopian stories like George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four or the Terry Gilliam film “Brazil,” but its sharpest moments (and slyest jokes) are rooted in character. Though Van and Eva are energized and challenged by the brave new world Van has helped to create, they quickly realize that their habits and needs are no longer the same. Within days of being able to speak to one another for the first time, Van discovers the classic white lie of a person who doesn’t feel like talking about something: “it’s a long story.” The ability to speak doesn’t necessarily mean the ability to communicate, and Nicholas Wardigo’s well-written script is sharp enough to note the difference.
For all the play’s strengths, there’s an unfortunate flaw in Hum’s staging: every time a character produces a message-bearing card, the audience must turn to a projection on the wall to see what the card says. It’s a necessary evil, given the premise of the play, but it also means that you spend at least a portion of Hum’s most pivotal scenes with your eyes turned away from the action. There are also some minor kinks to be worked out; at the show I attended, there were two times when the projections were mis-timed, which rendered the play’s action distractingly out of sync.
But despite these hiccups, Hum has an undeniable dramatic power that builds over its 90-minute runtime, and it’s well worth seeing the play to experience its strengths for yourself. By the time you reach Hum’s dreamlike, almost expressionistic ending, the play’s spell has fully been cast. And like any good piece of dystopian fiction, you’ll walk away from the theater reflecting on the horrors of the play’s world – and just how closely they reflect the horrors of ours.
Written by Nicholas Wardigo
Directed by Colin Hovde and Nathaniel Mendez
Produced by Theater Alliance
Reviewed by Scott Meslow
Running time: One hour and thirty minutes with no intermission