“Hundred Days”: A Tale of Time and Love

by Jean Schiffman

A play about “how time itself works on the forces of love, imagination and desire” opens at Z Space this month.

“Hundred Days,” a new, hybrid theater piece that’s part folk-rock musical, part drama, part fantasy and daringly metatheatrical, is set in the non-trendy and unglamorous borough of Queens.

“We wanted it to be in New York, but not the cool brownstone kind of place,” explains co-creator Shaun Bengson, the guitarist/singer who comprises half of the musical/theatrical duo the Bengsons. His wife, singer Abigail Bengson, agrees. “Because the show plays in fantasy, and in a certain kind of magic, it felt important to ground it,” she explains.

The show’s fictional young married couple, Will and Sarah, are not magical people in a magical place; as shadows, or proxies, of the Bengsons themselves—who have been married almost seven years now after knowing each other for three weeks—they’re ordinary people struggling with a real problem, and invoking a kind of ordinary magic.

The “real problem” is that Will has been diagnosed with lymphoblastic leukemia and is expected to live for three months—the 100 days of the title.

The Bengsons recently arrived in San Francisco from the East Coast, under the auspices of Z Space, to premiere the show, which they’ve been developing, at various locales, for several years. On this sunny Sunday afternoon they’re at a neighborhood café to discuss it.

“Falling in love,” explains Abigail, an open-faced brunette who, when singing, has an emotional power that evokes Janis Joplin, “was the first thing that truly made me come to terms with my own mortality, made me feel the clock ticking. I had so little time to live with this person, who would die.”

“Time suddenly starts to collapse in this funny way,” chimes in Shaun, who’s tall, with horn-rimmed glasses and a scruffy blond beard. “For the first time, I could picture myself at 40, 60, 70.” The two began to write songs about the panicky way they felt when confronted with the reality of the other’s mortality.

The Bengsons come from a deep and varied musical background. Both have studied musicology, both are influenced by many genres and styles, from hip hop to American traditional, from Mongolian and East European music to Tuvan throat-singing, from Paul Simon to Tom Waits to recent bands like The Gossip. Abigail declares an affinity with vocalists such as Joni Mitchell, Nell Carter and “those great women who allowed strangeness into their tone—[like] Billie Holiday.” Drawing upon their wealth of songwriting experience—they’ve played gigs from Joe’s Pub at the Public Theatre in New York to the Market Theatre in Johannesburg, and a recent single, “Ashes,” was featured on TV’s “So You Think You Can Dance”—and working with collaborators, they homed in on a concept. Over time that concept would morph into a two-act musical play. In it, Abigail and Shaun, as themselves—or rather as stage versions of themselves—tell the story of Will and Sarah, who decide to compact the 100 days left to them into an entire lifetime of experience.

“Of course it’s true that all of us don’t have enough time,” allows Shaun. “So these characters are taking this very magnified problem we all face and dealing with it in their youthful way, trying to elongate time as much as possible.” Adds Abigail, “They’re imagining it so deeply, and with a unity, that maybe the memories they have are as valid as someone who lives longer. We don’t know because we haven’t lived longer yet.”

“Hundred Days” existed as a series of songs for a long time. Then Lisa Steindler, artistic director of Z Space, invited the Bengsons down from Seattle, where they’d been working on the piece with a new ensemble theater there, the Satori Group. “I met with them, I listened to their music, and within 48 hours I fell in love,” Steindler confesses. She offered the duo a development opportunity here and took on the role of producing director, matching them up with a crack collaborative team that includes nationally known, New York-based director Anne Kauffman; New York/Bay Area playwright Kate E. Ryan (to write the book); local choreographer Joe Goode to create the movement; and a band—comprising bass, drums, guitars, keyboard and cello—whose members also play small bit parts and function as a chorus. Local actors Amy Lizardo and Reggie D. White, who are part of the chorus in the first act, transform into Sarah and Will in the second act. In the 12-person cast, everybody sings, and eight of them, including the Bengsons, play instruments (Abigail on drums).

“This is a huge project for us in many ways—the scope, financially,” says Steindler. The show is on Z’s mainstage, on a set (designed by Kris Stone) that mirrors and makes use of the old warehouse’s unique architectural elements, such as its wall of windows. For Steindler, “Hundred Days” represents everything Z Space, as a new-play incubator and producing organization, is about: to develop exciting new work and support artists.

Both Bengsons have been close to people with cancer, but, as Shaun says, “It’s very, very important that we get it right. So many people have dealt with it themselves, or with their loved ones, it’s not a story to be handled lightly.” The two did intense research on leukemia. “We’re careful,” says Abigail, “to not sugarcoat the terrible experience it could be and also somehow allow it to be that terrible and also be a celebration of [Will and Sarah’s] love and their life.”

Playwright Ryan helped them create a character to counterbalance the trap that any romantic play about a young person’s death could fall into: Old Sarah, who is completely unsentimental. “She’s …totally not charmed by Abigail and Shaun,” says Abigail. “She’s the surviving person who can come back and say, ‘Calm down, you’re gonna be fine.’ Old Sarah is someone with incredible perspective and a little less fairy dust in her eyes.”

Like Steindler, Anne Kauffman—who directed Adam Bock’s “The Typographer’s Dream” here (a 2005 Encore Theatre West Coast premiere with Steindler in the cast)—also said yes to the project immediately. Kauffman, who works with many theaters in New York and elsewhere, and most recently directed “Smokefall” at the Goodman Theatre and South Coast Rep, was intrigued by the Bengsons’ hybrid of concert and theater piece. “In the first act we’re in concertland,” she explains, of the play’s nontraditional format. “The first three-fourths of [that act] is storytelling, patter and song. The second act is the play—more of an operetta, this magical world where Will and Sarah are actually aging.”

Of working with the Bengsons, she says, “They’re yes people, and that’s incredibly rewarding. They’re poets, with endless imagination. What’s so incredible about them as performers is their natural concert patter. We’re trying to capitalize on that relationship and create the text around their natural rhythms, so we never lose them as performers, and so they always have one foot in Shaun and Abigail.”

“We never imagined Abigail and Shaun would be a part of the show,” admits Abigail, “but Kate and Annie challenged us to include ourselves, and I think that makes it much more raw, more honest.” It was scary, she says, to tell this story that is so close to her heart.

Kauffman pinpoints the three major ingredients of “Hundred Days”: love, imagination, intense desire. And a fourth: time. “Both Abigail and Shaun are interested in the notion of time, and how it works—to reflect how we as humans regard time,” she explains. “We want control over it. It controls us in the end. Whatever manipulation you do with time, it still marches on.” The play, she says, is ultimately about “how time itself works on the forces of love, imagination and desire.”

Feb. 20-Apr. 6

Z Space

450 Florida St. (866) 811-4111