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Editorial Review

Theater review: ‘Hum’
By Nelson Pressley
Monday, May 21, 2012

Nicholas Wardigo’s new play “Hum” is a dystopian drama about how technology has us in its clutches. Ironically, “Hum” is at its best when technology has Wardigo’s play in its clutches. Given the freedom to speak, it hardly knows how.

In its mini-bursts of tweet- and text-style utterances, though, “Hum” is onto something, and the savvy Theater Alliance production at the Atlas Performing Arts Center saturates you in a futuristic milieu that’s recognizable.

Sound designer Brendon Vierra creates a brilliant, ever-shifting hum -- the perpetual background noise of the title -- that’s like a combination of “Star Wars” lightsaber droning and sonar pings. Van and Eva, a husband and wife, don’t even try to talk over this aural wash. They “talk” in prewritten flashcards with banalities such as “Coffee?” and “Thanx.” The audience reads those communiques, and the exchanges Van has with a nameless stranger on a train, on a grid work of screens that Robbie Hayes uses for his sophisticated projections.

No one speaks through the first half of the play, but the production -- co-directed by Colin Hovde, Theater Alliance’s artistic director, and Nathaniel Mendez, who plays the stranger -- is one of the more immersive sensory experiences onstage now. As Van and Eva, Jon Reynolds and Kennen Sisco make cheerful but strict dances of the husband-and-wife routines (breakfast, work, dinner, bed). Reynolds and Sisco do the futuristic plastic people bit very well, and costume designer Heather Lockard has seen to it that even their shoes don’t make noise, adding to their unreality. In this terse, rote world, the slightest verbal variation becomes electric with possibility.

The conflict comes from the stranger, who jolts Van by asking (via a scrawl on a scrap of paper), “Do u no wot the hum is?” Van doesn’t know, but he’s intrigued, and “Hum” turns toward noir. Mendez’s stranger, in trench coat and fedora, sparks a plot that gets Van thumbing madly through the dictionary -- so many new words! -- and conspiring to stop the hum.

At that point, Wardigo seems stumped. With the hum and its unmistakable metaphors, Wardigo creates a gripping theatrical reflection of our moment. But Van’s and Eva’s naive stammering and soupy theorizing once they talk seem less about the poignancy of their situation than about a playwright who’s not sure how to drive his scenario home.

So the show’s thrilling nonverbal tango, a taut mix of sound, light and movement against the right angles of Hayes’s black-and-white set design, gives way to Wardigo’s self-conscious dialogue and too-earnest acting by Reynolds and Sisco. The play gets caught between being abstruse and cliched, and Wardigo can’t find a way out.

His way in, though, is a wonderful brain-tickler, and at Saturday’s matinee, the theme played out in the audience as a woman in the front row spent most of the show texting. Perhaps she was asking the Internet if it nos wot the hum is.

Preview: Do you hear what I hear?
By Jessica Goldstein
Wednesday, May 16, 2012

In Theater Alliance’s world-premiere production “Hum,” an incessant humming sound fills the world, rendering verbal communication impossible. That is, until an outsider arrives and makes the humming stop, forcing married couple Van and Eva to learn how to talk to each other without the cardboard signs they’ve been scribbling all their lives.

The hum “is a drumming, didgeridoo sound,” said artistic director Colin Hovde, who is co-­ directing the show with Nathaniel Mendez. “It’s like a heartbeat that has feedback.”

In addition to being a literal hum, “it’s allegorical,” said Hovde. “It could be any number of things: the socioeconomic structure within which we live, [it] could be money, it could be technology, but it could also be the mind chatter that goes on in people’s heads.”

“The hum can be described as monolithic or draconian,” said playwright Nicholas Wardigo. “It’s also very comforting.” Wardigo intended the hum “to be metaphorical of Facebook and texting and cellphones and all of that” but said it could just as easily symbolize “something like communism or religion or government, other deeper, larger ideas.”

Spoiler alert: “We won’t really define what the hum is,” said Hovde.

The power of the hum, Hovde said, is the way in which it unites the actors and the audience in a common conundrum: No one can escape it. “There’s a completely shared experience between audience and performer,” he said. “You can literally feel this hum, and it’s the same hum that those actors are feeling. When it stops, you’re experiencing the same thing that they’re experiencing.”

You can feel the hum? As in, through the floor?

“Oh, yes,” said Hovde. “It’s really strong. But you get used to it.”