There are two sides to every road. But ask a long-haul trucker, a traveling salesman, or a pair of wandering minstrels like the Bengsons, and they'll remind you that those sides converge at the horizon line.
The Bengsons — married musician-songwriters Abigail and Shaun — met randomly through a gig in New York City back in the late aughts. A mutual attraction, immediate and fierce, led them to become engaged within weeks of their first conversation. Both then in their early 20s, with serious and eclectic musical backgrounds, they recall the courtship as a whirlwind of powerful new emotions, bright and dark. Fast on the heels of marriage came five years of traveling across the country as their own band — a sure blend of musical influences that slips across various genres, in a sort of indie folk, neo-vaudevillian, truck stop cabaret, and drive-by rock opera that more or less dovetails with their daily selves. Among much else, living and learning as peripatetic artists and lovers has given them the opportunity to explore the meaning of all those feelings that led to their highly creative, itinerant relationship.
The fruit of that exploration is in the world premiere this week of Hundred Days, a major musical-theatrical venture carefully nurtured by Z Space and three years in the making. Directed by Anne Kauffman and with a book by Bay Area–based playwright Kate E. Ryan — both fully collaborative partners in the project, the Bengsons readily acknowledge — Hundred Days is something like a real-life Once: a true love affair cast through a darkly playful fictional story about Sarah (Abigail Bengson) and Will (Shaun Bengson), two 20somethings who find their powerful new love comes with a serious expiration date.
The production is no mere concert (though it rocks, loudly and well), but every inch a theatrical experience. Ryan provides a complete and involving narrative spine to the at times raucous, at times haunting musical set pieces. Moreover, Hundred Days features a large and talented cast of actors and musicians (including El Beh, Melissa Kaitlyn Carter, Geneva Harrison, Kate Kilbane, Jo Lampert, Amy Lizardo, Dalane Mason, Joshua Pollock, and Reggie D. White); a moody and mercurial set design by Kris Stone (aglow with a sort of post-industrial romanticism courtesy of lighting designer Allen Willner); and choreography by renowned San Francisco dance maker Joe Goode.
But at its heart are a body of songs of surprising force and subtlety, in dynamic arrangements that showcase both the Bengsons' hard-won skills as musicians and composers, as well as their exhilarating ability to convey a rare sense of emotional honesty, of uncensored feeling, in their work. Before a recent rehearsal ahead of the show's first previews, the couple sat down and shared musings on the journey that brought them here.
SF Bay Guardian You've described your courtship as being a kind of existential crisis, in that it suddenly put life in an unsettling new perspective.
Shaun Bengson It did start to feel incredibly short.
Abigail Bengson It's life's irony that in rushing to live life fully you do collide more quickly with the end of it. Rushing towards life is inevitably rushing towards death. That's true of everybody. In the play, we put a timer on it, to help us talk about it in a more concrete way. But that's just how we feel every day anyway [laughs] It's just sort of the situation.
SB They're such big feelings, it's taken a really long time to sort them out and figure out what's going on there — a lot of the wonder, and also the neurosis and the fear — all of that is where the show came from.