Packing in Music and Lives at Know Theatre

Critic's Pick: Hundred Days, the first production of KnowTheatre’s 18th season, defies categorization. Since Know is a theater company, ofcourse, it’s a play.

Critic's Pick

Hundred Days, the first production of Know Theatre’s 18th season, defies categorization. Since Know is a theater company, of course, it’s a play. But the performance is as much an Indie Rock concert as it is a dramatic work. Settling into Know’s 100-seat auditorium, you’ll see a multi-level stage ready for music: microphone set-ups, a drum kit, a snare drum, a cello, a keyboard, an accordion and several guitars. Overhead are numerous incandescent lights — perhaps 100? — suspended individually.

As Abigail and Shaun Bengson stride onstage, they are accompanied by five musicians. They introduce themselves casually as “The Bengsons.” Some of Know’s regulars applaud, recalling the 2011 Cincy Fringe when the pair undertook a developmental project called “Songs from The Proof,” material that has evolved into Hundred Days.

Raven-haired Abigail describes a dream she had before meeting Shaun, bespectacled and blond, and you wonder if this is just to draw us in before they get down to the actual storytelling. But it’s a preface to a powerful love story, rooted in their own but taking on a life of its own.

They quickly launch into songs, “Vows” and “My Skin is Made,” as their personal story unfolds. Their chance meeting was a case of love at first sight, “This Moment.” Shaun shares his excitement with a friend and we’re transported to their wedding three weeks later. Abigail’s dream had a fearful twist, “He Fell Down So Slowly,” which becomes the jumping-off point from the reality of the Bengsons to a speculative future that reflects more universal fears of mortality and separation, ultimately assuaged by the reassurance of love and longevity.

They imagine a couple faced with a fatal illness. Rather than panic, they fling themselves into living 60 years together in the “100 Days” that life has allocated. It’s a joyous, poignant tale that uses every dimension of the performers: the powerful duo of Shaun and Abigail, of course, but also the singer/musicians behind them — Colette Alexander (cello, vocals), James Creque (vocals, guitar, synth), Brian Adrian Koch (drums, vocals), Jo Lampert (vocals, accordion and a scene as Shaun’s best friend) and Lindsay August Mercer (vocals, guitar, synth). At two important moments, four expressive dancers from Exhale Dance Tribe — Sarah Emmons, Katie Farry, Courtney Howard and Jacob Thoman — underscore emotions onstage using choreography conceived by Sonya Tayeh.

Abigail and Shaun are vibrant physical musicians. She has the vocal power and range of Janis Joplin, ranging from sweet tenderness to howling fear; she uses a hand to her chest and the snare drum to accelerate the tempo in time with her beating heart. He has a more thoughtful, understated presence, but he frequently joins her strident pace. Their music is full of catchy hooks, and some of the show’s best moments happen when the audience, encouraged by the performers, joins in with rhythmic clapping.

Anne Kauffman, an award-winning director from New York City, has staged the show. She has created perhaps the most powerful and memorable moment in Hundred Days near the conclusion of the show’s 75-minute performance. The suspended lights glow ever brighter; some descend five or six feet to intensify their presence. The musicians remain onstage, in shadows. The stage manager delivers two music stands to Shaun and Abigail at center stage. They face one another in a focused pool of light and speak simply (relying on pages in ring binders), sometimes truthfully, sometimes haltingly, of what their decades together might have held, time they can imagine if not experience. They speak of having children and how their musical careers might unfold; they consider how they might be “exactly the same” but wiser, perhaps “cracked open.” By 80, they envision being happy and healthy and “with it.”

Truth to tell, everything about Hundred Days is “with it.” The performers and the music are wholly engaging, and the rapturous story they tell is emotionally powerful, exploring feelings and fears we know but seldom speak. Know’s production is stellar. Tayeh’s choreography and the dancers distill the show’s message. Doug Borntrager’s clear, sharp sound design and sound engineer August Rice’s execution makes Hundred Days eminently listenable. Know’s artistic director, Andrew Hungerford, a veteran scenic and lighting designer, has applied his technical talents to the mix. He’s also the guy responsible for bringing this show to Know’s stage. Hundred Days has the feel of a Fringe production, but one with a ton of polish and finesse. It might be the most unique and memorable work on a Cincinnati theater stage this summer.

HUNDRED DAYS, presented by Know Theatre, continues through Aug. 22.