I have to say, from my perspective, there’s something irresistibly charming and poignant about listening to two young artists discuss their lives together as they continue through their 50s, their 60s, 70s, 80s and beyond.
This is part of a wistful, vibrant musical concert/drama titled Hundred Daysnow at the La Jolla Playhouse with the creators themselves in the central roles, supported by compact but formidable musical support forces.
Abigail and Shaun Bengson apparently have been working on this piece since they instantly bonded a decade or so back. It’s been produced across the country from San Francisco and Seattle to New York and Cincinnati but it’s still as fresh as a junk-yard daisy.
The 16 songs obviously have emerged organically from the rich loam of an especially passionate pairing. The catalyst se
ems to have been an opinion from a doctor that Shaun had only about 100 days left to live as a cancer advanced.
Facts are scarce but less important than the vivid desperation of the music as the two veer wildly between the ecstasy of finding each other and the anguish of being forever ripped apart. As they work through their despair and scratch out fingerholds on reality – make every minute seem like a day; run away until there’s no place left to run – it becomes obvious that the stubborn strength of their shared life will allow for refreshed hope.
If this piece is as sincere and accurate as it professes to be – and there’s no pressing reason to doubt this – then it’s astounding how such sensitive artists can continue to polish and refine something so personal after so long. And yet, there it is, marked in particular by its fresh thrust of urgency.
Most of the show’s audience impact comes from Abigail Bengson. In a Mother Earth body with Natural Woman hair, she demands total attention. Her smile dazzles, her eyes might pierce like weapons in the wrong hands and her voice – 23 octaves or so strung between sub-woofer growls and laser hawk shrieks, with yodels prominent among the throat tricks – stretches credulity. Think a combination of Janis Joplin and Pete Seeger as she both assaults and cuddles the crowd. Shaun Bengson is Mr. Milquetoast to his wife’s Furies Unleashed, but there has got to be a lot there. The songs testify so. And his guitar and careful vocal harmonies are a strong spine for the songs.
The narrative is the work of the Bengsons (that’s how they bill themselves) and Sarah Gancher. Anne Kauffman is credited as the director and Sonya Tayeh supervised the movement. There is a standard set of designers but the scenery and costumes are simply cheap chic meets artists hangin’ out. Only Andrew Hungerford’s lighting is notable, for such gentle elements as white sand falling from above down the length of a fluorescent tube. And, of course, the sound (Nicholas Pope) is right up to concert standards.
The Bengsons wrote all the songs and brought them into keen performance edge, no small achievement for artists also simultaneously performing. The band is a four-piece combination that I’ve always admired – keyboards, accordion, cello and percussion – used here in knowing synchronization with advanced electronics. The keyboard is mostly a drone or bass beat, the percussion solid country-punk with few tricks, the cello a lovely solo voice and the accordion a busy and versatile fill-in. All the musicians sing with purpose and most of them have a snippet of personality patched into the show’s main drive by Kauffman and Tayeh.
A hundred days left? Less the voice of doom, the Bengsons suggest, and more a goad to ponder insights that reach far beyond mere deadlines.
It could be interesting to see what they come up with next. Like a fledgling author, they’ve gotten the autobiography worked out. An interested audience askes, “What next?”
(Continues in the UCSD Mandell Weiss Forum at 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays and Wednesdays; 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays; 2 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays; and 7 p.m. Sundays through Oct. 21, 2018.)