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.