Even without the Bengsons, “Hundred Days” is a sweet, painful tribute to true love

So let me be clear from the start: Shaun and Abigail Bengson, the folk-rock artists who created Hundred Days with playwright Sarah Gancher as a semi-autobiographical song cycle, are not actually on stage for Kokandy Productions’ sometimes joyful, often painful, but always powerful revival at Chopin Theatre. They are instead played by actors, with Emilie Modaff as Abigail and either Alec Phan or Royen Kent, depending on the night, as her husband and bandmate Shaun. (At opening night, Phan was in the role.) They are, however, supported by an outstanding five-piece band and, as directed by Lucky Stiff, they transport the audience into a relationship that is both beautiful and a bit frightening.

The show focuses on the whirlwind beginning of the real-life Bengsons’ relationship (they met in a diner and, abandoning her engagement and one of his close friendships, moved in together on their second date before marrying three weeks later). From there, however, they and Gancher take us on a dreamlike, sometimes nightmare-like journey that explores the answer to the question, What do you do if you know you have only one hundred days to live? It’s a question spurred by a vision that “Abigail” has before they meet, in which they clearly see their meeting, their relationship, and the fact that the love of their life will die after that short amount of time.

Note: Due to Modaff’s non-binary identity and the extremely personal nature of the story being told, Abigail is referred to as “they” throughout the show. The real Abigail, however, sees herself as female. In fact, in a Facebook post, she stated about the use of the word “woman” in a song: “I am a woman and that word for me in this song contains multitudes. It means ‘human’ for me. when I sing it this way, it means human-bodied-god-sparked-star-bone to me.” Ultimately, though, it doesn’t matter: the raw energy and powerful voice that Modaff brings to the role makes such matters moot, but I shall use the show’s pronouns unless I am referencing the real-life person.

Modaff is, in fact, extraordinary as an Abigail deeply struggling with trying to meld the joy of new love with the fear of impending loss. An introvert who spent much of their childhood “making friends out of cabinets and chairs,” they are suddenly so afraid to have a real connection ripped away that their reaction any time it is threatened is to run away first so that the loss won’t break them. This fear is deeply triggered when, after a minor traffic accident, Shaun ends up in the hospital, where Abigail has another vision, this time of a doctor telling them that Shaun is dying.

Shaun has fears of his own. Unaware of Abigail’s vision and worries, he wonders if he is even worthy of a powerful relationship, especially after ditching his best friend to move in with his lover. Desperate to stay together and make every second count, Abigail and Shaun decide to “slow down time”: “We’ll make so many memories that we’ll actually grow old; we will make a hundred days last forever.”

(This actually got a bit confusing for me, as we are simultaneously told that they are slowing time and that it is, bizarrely, whipping by way too quickly. But hey: love can do funny things to the mind.)

Throughout this lightning-fast (or maybe tortoise-slow?) relationship, we see the couple run through a lifetime of emotions, aided by the band members who, never really abandoning their own personas, take on the roles of people in the Bengsons’ lives. (Makes sense, as they are introduced as a “family band” from the outset.) The best and most showy and developed of these is Mel Vitaterna’s take on Shaun’s angry ex-best friend Max. But all of the band members, who travel the stage with the leads in Stiff’s strong, energetic blocking, find ways through words, actions, and expressions to support what is going on in the Bengsons’ lives. It’s that kind of show, and Grace Bobber, David Gordon-Johnson, Lucas “Looch” Johnson, and Brennan Urbi do far more than play the music (though, under the direction of Matthew Muñiz, they do that wonderfully).

The powerful energy Stiff gives to the show is not always a loud, manic one. Among the most memorable moments is a scene in which Modaff, as Abigail sees herself losing Shaun, enters a stark, surrealistic state (which Lighting Designer Jackie Fox bathes in blood-red light) and falls to the ground, her life bleeding all meaning as she starts to believe that “I’ll be nothing when he’s gone.”

Shaun asks at one point, “how can you bear to love someone?” and that is the core element of Hundred Days. You can’t. But, despite it all, that is what we are meant to do, and life is not worth much if we don’t. When the Bengsons and the band sing, “I see you,” it is not just a line; it is the ultimate statement of human caring and bonding. We all need to “see” each other more. If we did, our lives—and the world—would be far better for it.

Hundred Days is playing until January 9; tickets are available at the Kokandy website.

4 thoughts on “Even without the Bengsons, “Hundred Days” is a sweet, painful tribute to true love

  1. Hello,

    With all due respect, it is incredible offensive and disrespectful to make a note of the fact that Emilie Modaff’s “non-binary identity” made them refer to Abigail as “they.” First of all, Emilie is non-binary, they do not “identify” as such. It’s simply a truth. Second, Abigail could have been referred to using “they/them” pronouns and still be a woman. Perhaps there are other people in this production that are trans? Did you consider that? Did you point out those facts that maybe the gender they were portraying wasn’t the gender they were assigned at birth?

    By making this “note” you’re insinuating the the actual Abigail Bengson wasn’t okay with this pronoun change. Pointing out her thoughts on being a woman further solidifies that you don’t agree that this actor could use their own pronouns to play a character. Quite frankly, the pronouns of this individual, both the character and actor, do not matter to the story. Whether or not Abigail was a woman using she/her pronouns or not, this story was about two people falling in love and dealing with what comes with that.

    You have made this a “thing” by pointing this out. To what end did you do this for? Who did you do this for? Did it actually support your review of this play? Did it take you out because you couldn’t understand non-gendered pronouns? This “note” feels hurtful and pointed and purposeless and I think you need to be aware how this will affect both cis-gender and those on the gender spectrum like myself. Frankly, it wasn’t necessary to add to your review; you even say it yourself after pointing out this information and statement you made. “Ultimately, it doesn’t matter” – so why are you saying it in the first place?

    Thank you for your time.

    1. Hi, Jackie,

      I did not delete your comment, as you can see; I simply had not read it yet, so it was not yet approved. Actually, I am very glad that you shared it.

      I am a trans woman. My son is a trans man. His spouse was non-binary. I have a whole lot of friends and acquaintances across the LGBTQ spectrum. I have even given speeches and participated in many panel discussions about these issues. I do not say this to negate anything you stated or to imply that I cannot be insensitive because of these facts of my life, but merely to inform you that I spent a lot of time considering this issue before writing about it.

      I spent a lot of the play with one small segment of my brain wondering what audiences would think of the use of the they/them pronouns. It seems to me that, though there is obviously nothing wrong with them, the fact that Abigail is a real person and this play is about her relationship with her husband at the very least could leave people confused or wondering. That is why I decided to write the comment: for clarification. Before posting it, I cleared it with the production team, who said that it was exactly right. Had they not thought so, I’d have left it out, no matter whether I thought it important to include.

      I know that nomenclature around this matter is idiosyncratic and that different trans/NB people have different thoughts about it, but her is mine, for what it’s worth:

      NB is part of the umbrella of “gender identity,” which I think absolutely justifies my use of the term. And of course Abigail can be a woman and still use they/them pronouns: pronouns, like names, are a means for social recognition. They have nothing at all to do with whether one is a man or a woman or NB or anything else. As to “whether there are other people…that are trans,” well, there are. But I was not discussing them because only Abigail’s character was given the gender-neutral pronouns, so it is only their character that could generate confusion. And I am quite certain, for the record, that the actual Abigail was perfectly fine with the change; otherwise, Stiff would not have done it.

      I wrote this comment—and indeed the whole review—from a position of thoughtful reflection by someone who is in fact immersed in the LGBTQ culture. The very last thing I would ever do would be to write anything intentionally “hurtful” (and I do try not to be “pointed and purposeless” as well). My assessment was and is that the pronouns could cause biographical confusion about a living woman, and I decided that it was my obligation as a reviewer to head that off. Still, I totally understand and respect your point of view and your feelings. As I said, I would not have included that note if the production people had not OK’d it.

  2. Hi Karen!

    Thanks for your thoughtful response to the comment left by Jackie. Jackie, thank you for saying the things I was afraid to say.

    I play Abigail on Kokandy’s production and I have to be honest about the way your review (though overall positive and validating) made me feel. Reading your comment gave me more perspective but I was wondering if you’d like to converse via email or zoom so I can express how it affected me and hear your perspective.

    I’ll leave my email in case you have the space and time to reach out.

    Thank you!

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