For the first 30 minutes of the world-premiere play Hum, Theater Alliance challenges Synetic Theater in the race to create the best dialogue-free drama in D.C. There’s well-crafted choreography, an engrossing electronic soundscape, and attractive actors in their underclothes.
And then the characters in Hum start talking, and it’s no longer much of a contest. But in first half-hour, playwright Nicholas Wardigo really has you going, drawing in the audience with palpable suspense, his stage directions rendered credibly by the cast and crew at Theater Alliance.
Sound, lighting and technical design are the stars here. Playing supporting roles are that Intro to Philosophy book that’s been collecting dust since freshman year, and your used-bookstore copy of 1984. The show’s premise, at least initially, is to explore pivotal questions in linguistic philosophy, like: Can concepts exist without words to describe them? And does limiting language limit original thought? Fans of Austrian philosopher Ludwig Wittgenstein should come see the show and hold talk-backs at the biergarten up the street.
But for the rest of us theatergoers, the question at hand is whether Wardrigo can turning esoteric aphorisms into an original and erudite entertainment. And he can’t. Not for a full 90 minutes, anyway. Van and Eva, the play’s main characters, live in a world where “the Hum” prohibits people from speaking, and written communication is limited to truncated messages prewritten on flash cards. Their days unfold in perfect symmetry. He’s lying flat on his side of the bed; she’s on hers. They dress together, drink coffee together, synchronously stab spears of broccoli together at dinner. And yet Jon Reynolds and Kennen Sisco also convince viewers that their limited existence is a pleasant one, and that they sincerely love each other, even if their displays of affection are limited to peckish kisses and flash cards that say “I [Heart]) U.”
Then one day their simple reverie is interrupted by a stranger, in a sinister fedora and sunglasses, who starts stalking Van on the subway. “do u no wot the hum is?” he asks. (As he holds up a card, the wording is projected on the back wall of the theater.) Van doesn’t. But he aids and abets the mysterious stranger, and distracts the security guard at work. A rather elaborate bit of pantomime follows, and we are later told—-once Van and Eva learn how to talk—-that the stranger has “broken” the Hum.
The cessation of the Hum may be liberating for Van and Eva, but for the audience, the introduction of dialogue (and disappearance of the soothing drone) is like the interruption of a fascinating dream. What remains is a mish-mash of the dystopian tropes explored by the likes of George Orwell, Terry Gilliam, and Margaret Atwood. Big Brother is here, oppressing the masses through the text-message vernacular of a teenage girl. (During pauses, the projections are phrases like “thx for waiting. u will b ok.”) There’s some sort of police state afoot, as represented by the violent security guard. And Eva, originally something of a Stepford Wife, evolves into a performance artist once she’s free to make noise.
Van and Eva’s marriage is initially threatened by verbal communication, and her ability to finally say, “Take out the trash!” The couple’s relationship deepens in spurts, and the play would benefit from a sharper focus on their efforts to communicate. Instead, we get just brief glimpses of humor and humanity. Wardigo would rather his audience fixate on the details of his dystopian who-dun-it. Which is too bad, because by emphasizing the overwrought plot, he traps fascinating characters in totalitarian clichés.
Theater Alliance presents Hum, directed by Colin Hovde and Nathaniel Mendez, at Atlas Performing Arts Center to June 2. $20-$35. Ticketing information here.