by James O’Barr
The premise of The Bengson’s Hundred Days, Harlequin Productions’ terrific cabaret-style musical memoir beginning a three-week run at the State Theatre on May 5, is that the love of your life has just a hundred days to live. Hard enough when love is old, but if it’s new? That’s the bad dream that came to life for Abigail Neely when she met, moved in with, and three weeks later married Shaun Bengson. Both were talented young folk-punk musicians, singer-songwriters trying to make it in New York City in the early 20-teens; and once Abigail’s bad dream, though grounded in traumatic family circumstances, proved to be just that, The Bengsons (as they were now known) got the help of friend and neighbor Sarah Gancher, prolific playwright and winner of many awards and honors, to co-create “Hundred Days,” a slightly fictionalized performance piece starring The Bengsons as Abigail and Shaun. Pandemic-permitting, they’ve played the country to rave reviews, and are currently planning a sequel.
When you walk into the house of the State Theater to take your seats for “Hundred Days” (which I encourage you to do at your earliest convenience, or sooner), you’ll see a thrust stage set for musicians, with instruments and mikes strewn about. Directly in front of the stage are several small tables and chairs, and at the back of the house, behind the last row of seats, is a bar, with bartender on hand. No question, you’re meant to imagine you’re in a club or a bar or cabaret, to this reviewer’s mind a slightly seedy one. Pretty soon the musicians wander onto the stage, most of them familiar to regular attenders of Harlequin shows, and to those who know Amy Shephard’s band, Sugar and the Spitfires: Brent Pendleton on keyboards, Andy Garness on drums, Dave Broyles on guitar, and Rick Jarvela on bass. Also from Sugar and the Spitfires, there’s Jen Grady on cello, Heather Matthews on accordion, and vocalist Amy Shephard. And that tall drink of water with the guitar is Denim Protégé, of Denim and the Deep Pockets. They start warming up, and pretty soon there’s something really cooking — on opening night a powerhouse solo by Heather Matthews. Gradually, Amy Shepherd and Denim Protégé let you know that they’re going to be The Bengsons, Abigail and Shaun, for the next 80 minutes, and suddenly they are. With the confessional, often poetic, sometimes dark, ironic, and funny storytelling, and the stylistically diverse alt-folk-rock songs composed by The Bengsons lighting the way, the audience — many oldsters opening night, and a young girl sitting next to her mom across the way from us — was spellbound and with them every step of the way.
Credit for this no doubt starts with director Aaron Lamb and his work with his actors and with all the usual Harlequin design and production suspects, especially Olivia Burlingame for lighting design and John Serembe for the gorgeous upstage projections. But it was the actors/musicians—Amy Shephard, with her confident presence and the intense fire and big voice she brought to Abigail, and Denim Protégé, with his sweet tenor and complementary cool and contained Shaun, and the band, functioning as a kind of musical and vocal chorus to the two leads—who so powerfully and convincingly brought The Bengsons to life on the State Theater stage. As noted above, Hundred Days won’t be there long, so, don’t worry, be happy, get tickets.
Photos courtesy of Harlequin Productions
The Bengson’s Hundred Days
7:30 p.m. May 11 (Pay what you choose), May 12, May 13 (Pay what you choose)
2:00 p.m. May 14
7:30 p.m. May 18, May 19 (Pay what you choose), May 20
2:00 p.m. May 21, May 24 (Pay what you choose)
7:30 p.m. May 25, May 26, May 27 (Closing Night)
Harlequin Productions, State Theatre, 202 4th Avenue East, Olympia
$33 – $50, Pay what you choose 5/11, 5/13, 5/19, 5/24