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Indie-rock musical 'Hundred Days' hits all the right notes at Z Space

If you love the feet-stomping, hand-clapping, gregarious sing-a-longs of The Lumineers and Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, or you are plotting how to get to Glen Hasard’s Tony Award winning musical “Once” on Broadway, then Z Space’s latest production “Hundred Days” was written just for you.

Married couple, The Bengsons' new indie-rock opera, 'Hundred Days' is playing at Z Space
Married couple, The Bengsons' new indie-rock opera, 'Hundred Days' is playing at Z Space
James Faerron
Shaun and Abigail Bengsons' 'Hundred Days' at Z Space
Photo by Mark Leialoha

Currently playing in your Mission backyard, till Sunday April 6, “Hundred Days” marries that low-key indie appeal with a big–on-heart story and rousing original songs like “Bells” and "Saturdays" that could sit easily on the indie-rock charts next to Death Cab for Cutie or The Frames as they do on this theatre stage.

At the heart of it, is a timeless love story. What would you do if you were young, impulsive and in love, then suddenly it is all cut short with the diagnosis of a terminal disease?

Will and Sarah, the newlyweds in the play decide to lock themselves away and play out the next 60 years in one hundred days because what is life, if not the sum of your memories? And so they shut friends and family out and quickly set about to make some.

‘Hundred Days’ is based on real-life couple Abigail and Shaun Bengson who are both talented singers and musicians. They came up with the concept, wrote all the music and perform in it. The play premiered as part of Noise Pop 2014 earlier this month, partly because of its musical component but also as Z Space shares a similar ethos of supporting new acts/productions and nurturing homegrown artists.

In the arc of their own life, the Bengsons were also married 3 weeks of meeting each other like the story that unfolds onstage. They have been married 7 years now. But "Hundred Days" originated from their giddy realization that when true love strikes, mortality comes to the fore and no amount of time together seems quite enough. If it seems schmaltzy, it’s to the credit of the creative team and the deft hand of director, Anne Kauffman that it never descends into pathos.

The narrative is swift but does forsake something in its storytelling. There's a wealth of details in the vivid lyrics that the Bengsons have penned that can be mined, explored, contextualized and written into the narrative for a much richer and layered tapestry. However, sufficiently caught up in the hypnotic music and cascading emotion of it all that you can choose to ignore the flaws. A bit like falling in love really.

The stunning set is constantly in flux with the physical space of the warehouse venue - all vaulted ceilings and tall glass windows not only a fantastic canvas but almost a cast member. But of course, again, it is the music that really lifts this folk-rock opera from the ordinary with strong performances from the four-piece band, cellist and chorus with special mention to Jo Lampert as Will’s childhood friend.

The onstage musical chemistry of the Bengsons is intoxicating. If Abigail Bengson’s vocals sometimes come across as too theatrical and over-the-top cause she has the energy, puppy-dog enthusiasm and the sheer pipes for it, her husband tempers this nicely with his hushed and measured troubadour-style delivery.

But Mrs Bengsons got range. She can move between the deep soul and folk-tinge blues of Janis Joplin, to the banshee yell of Kate Bush or more modern angst of Alanis Morissette. My favorite is her sweet spot - soft and ever so charming with a faint lilt of Dolly Parton. The effect is the heart wrenching, tears-won’t-stop-welling up final song, ‘Bells’ which begins softly with “Feel the chill in the air/I carry you back up the stairs/to see the glory of/ the lights over Astoria”. By the time the refrain kicks in, just about everyone in the theatre struggles to hold back tears.

Having watched it twice already, I can see myself going back. It’s like putting your favorite record on, you’re just hanging out for when you can do it again. It is also what keeps Z Space's Executive Artistic Director, Lisa Steindler watching the show every night. She was responsible for inviting the Bengsons to stage their set-in-New York piece, here in San Francisco. In an interview with at her Z Space office this week, Steindler reveals how it all came together, why time is so important when mounting new works and where "Hundred Days" hopes to go next.

Let’s start at the beginning, how did this project come about as you have quite a few collaborators - Encore Theatre as well Piece by Piece Productions?

It takes a village. I got interested in this project 3 years ago when James Faerron from Encore Theatre brought me to see them. I work with Encore too – I wear many different hats. The Bengsons were playing in the Starry Plough or Hotel Utah, I forget, I went to see them and just fell in love with the music. I met up with them after and they told us this story they had. And I said let’s workshop this. They were working with a group in Seattle already, so they all came to San Francisco for 4 to 5 days to work on it. To find the team around them – that took about another year with sorting a director, playwright, crew and others performing in it. Then it was finding partners. Wendy Van Heuvel from Piece by Piece came on board with financial and artistic backing. From there, it was literally trying to pull resources together.

You are not kidding when you say that ‘Z Space is an arts incubator’, it's taken 3 years?

Yes, it’s one long-ass incubator. (laughs)

The story is based in Queens, the Bengsons are from New York but they had been working in Seattle when you met up with them - were they ever like we don’t want to do this in San Francisco?

When they came up into Z Space and saw it, they said ‘we want our story to live here. It’s a yes.’

But it’s very much a work-in-progress still?

The ending has changed quite a bit. During some previews the 2 proxy characters (who also step in as Will portrayed by Reggie D. White and Sarah by Amy Lizardo) played out to the end. Then we decided to hand it back to Abigail and Shaun. There are also other questions we are asking about the proxy characters – are they useful? Can we use them in a different way? But you also get to a point when we’re here like 20hrs a day so we don’t want to keep changing things too much. The play is simple in some ways but the story is difficult to tell. We are going back into development in the summer. People should see it now because it might be a very different piece by then.

It seems unusual to have the music written first and then Kate E Ryan wrote the book that then became the script?

It did start with a handful of songs but new songs were added. Old songs like “Saturdays” were re-written. Kate Ryan, the Bengsons and our director, Annie (Kaufman) all workshop-ed it. The Bengsons didn’t just tell Kate the story and she went away and came back with the finished script. Much of it came from the improvisation work together.

What is the Z Space modus operandi for new works which do not always originate with a script?

It's really about the people involved and if they are folks we want to be involved with for a long period of time. So much of what we do at Z Space is driven by relationships, hard work, the need to challenge one another and striving for artistic excellence. However, there does have to be a strong story and foundation for any project to move forward.

What are the challenges of staging a new work?

Money. Seriously, it is challenging to find the resources to produce and develop the unknown. It is pure risk and really just a belief in an idea and the artists that surround that idea.

What excites you about it and what does it mean to stage a new work in the landscape of theatre and society at large?

What excites me most are the people involved in any given project. It excites me to enter into the unknown and try things out. If we are taking risks and making discoveries there will be failure along the way but there also just might be a bit of magic. My hope when I produce any show is that someone who experiences it will leave the theatre with a little bit of a different perception about the world or experience something profound and life changing.

You also hope to take this production to New York and it has such potential but what has to happen for it to become a reality?

Hard to say. We are planning to do another workshop this summer and really what needs to happen is for someone in NYC to see the show or want to participate in getting it to New York. We shall see.

How do you see this role of Z Space as a new-works incubator?

I see San Francisco as a city that’s all about risk-taking. And the tech industry is relevant to the city’s eco-system. 99 per cent of what we do at Z Space either the curated work or the work featured in our rented-space is new. I never just pull something off the shelf - "Hundred Days" is not "Grease 2" or "Oklahoma". It’s difficult to know how it will do but we have to take the risk. A big part of the risk is failure. And very few theatre companies are willing to do that. So it’s vital that we stay true to our mission to develop new work. I have seen it too many times when new work with potential is pushed out too quickly and then nobody wants to touch it. We don’t want to make that mistake so we try to give the work, the time that it needs to gestate.

And you have had residencies out-of-town?

We try to give our productions about 15 weeks of development time but that performance space is important to us, because that’s our rental income. So for “Hundred Days” we held a residency at Williams College (Massachusetts) where Shaun and Abigail teach. And Kate, our playwright is from the East Coast too. And the students at the College participate instead of flying the whole band from here, so it really becomes the cost of the airfare for the leads.

There is a fight for The Mission at the moment with the influx of Tech companies, this rapid gentrification and displacement, can theatre artists even afford to live and work here?

Some of our cast members are from out-of-town, and finding housing for them was very difficult and expensive. It was only for Jo (Lampert), Dalane (Mason) and Annie – we tried to keep that to a minimum, as we generally want to support our local artists. But we need to look into the greater issue of Artist Housing for visiting performers as well as how to keep our artists here. Some of the cast that you see on stage are paid a decent sum but it can still be really hard.

So we need the Tech Industry to help support the local arts or for those millennials who have moved in to the Mission district to come out and see plays?

I think they would really enjoy it too. Maybe they just don’t know we’re here. But this is their hood now.That’s what makes some of us wonder if they are really invested in this community. It’s not about wanting Twitter to write us a check, although that would be nice (laughs). It’s about opening a paper on a Friday or checking online at Z Space to see what’s going on. I have produced a lot of theatre and usually only come to the opening and closing night. But I have watched “Hundred Days” every night since it’s opening. It’s just that good. There is nothing like this show. It’s a hybrid with the amazing talents of Abigail and Shaun at the core. And the band kicks ass. I want people to see this, take a risk and buy a ticket. You won’t regret it!

For tickets to “Hundred Days” please click here.

"Hundred Days"

Where: Z Space. Located at 450 Florida Street, San Francisco.

When: Every Wed, Thurs, Fri, Sat and Sun. From 20 Feb till April 6. Wed and Sun shows begin at 7pm. Thurs to Sat shows begin at 8pm. There is a half-hour intermission and no late entry.

Tickets start at $15 and go up to $75.

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