CenterStage in the ’62 Center for Theatre and Dance was packed last Wednesday night, as each audience member was eager to see the work of the duo Abigail Nessen Bengson ’05 and Shaun McClain Bengson.
The pair walked on stage with the visible chemistry of a couple in love, not only with one another, but also with their music. Their unique brand of quirkiness was visible even in what they wore: She wore cuffed khakis, a cable-knit sweater and dark-rimmed glasses contrasting with her dark red lipstick, a leather jacket and a wild mane of curls. As they introduced themselves, my attention was drawn to Abigail because of the incredible amount of energy emanating from her. Her smile, wide and toothy, was present for most of their performance.
The Bengsons began by telling a story of love, one that sprung as much from imagination as from their own experience. It began simply enough: A man and a woman fall desperately in love within hours of meeting each other. But soon the story takes a turn, as we learn that Will (the protagonist) has a fatal illness. His disease is eating at his soul and living in his bones, becoming a part of him. The couple is undoubtedly distraught but makes a decision to live out all of the years that they surely deserve with each other in the singular year of life Will has left to live. They plot to recreate the seasons and the years, expediting the apparent passage of time. This way, as Will was eaten by his sickness, it would seem as if he were aging both naturally and normally. He would have the chance to live out a whole lifetime with Sarah, the love of his life. The opening song describes their despair, their shock; Abigail communicated the imaginary couple’s desperation and loss of control through abstract lyrics and deep notes, her voice reverberating from extremely high pitches to long verses in tenor. It was as if in telling this hair-raising story of degrading health, the couple took a little bit of everything and created something totally unique, reminiscent of Vaudeville folk.
The first half of the performance, particularly following Will and Sarah’s wedding, was extremely fast-paced and jubilant: The couple attempted to cram everything into the time they had, making for a fantastical, vibrant show. About halfway through, however, the music shifted, becoming much slower and macabre. A variety of accents and noises were employed, all of which produced a feeling of slow death in the audience. Both performers exhibited a tremendous ability for expression, adding to the theatrical aspect of the performance. As Abigail shook and flipped her curls, her face transformed from a smile inappropriate for the subject matter to a seriousness reflected in the depth of her voice, which enveloped the listener in the morbidity into which the lovers had descended. Meanwhile, Shaun took us into the world of his guitar, using the instrument to convey emotions much like Abigail did with her voice. The verses were synchronized, loud and powerful when emotions peaked, slow and caressing as Will weakened.
The performance culminated in the swells of the song “Three-legged Dog,” in which Will realizes he cannot trap his young wife with him in the futureless abyss to which his illness has doomed him. He sets up a maze for Sarah to follow, ultimately making it impossible for her to return. When Sarah realizes his ploy, it is too late, and she begins to sing of her entrapment. The lyricism here is powerful and personal as it describes a dog chewing off its leg for freedom, accepting that sacrificing this seemingly vital part of itself is necessary for its survival; similarly, Sarah must let go of Will, so she may live and love once again.
The show is brought to an end by Will’s death and Sarah’s rebirth into society. The audience is re-energized, brought into this new world with Sarah via a series of crescendos and exciting, happy tunes. Abigail can hardly control her own excitement, clapping and jumping as she sings. The passion and pleasure of the couple in performing is infectious, tangible, a true delight to be a part of. The love and intimacy transcribed in the show is so powerful that it brings a feeling of embarrassment, for their souls stand bare for this audience to share in and witness: a very rare experience in today’s world. The particular combination of accents, noises, expressions and words bring out intimate feelings and memories which one does not always want discovered. I went into the show not knowing exactly what to expect but with an open mind; after seeing them perform, I invite you to listen to the Bengsons’ new album, The Proof, and experience this tremendous musical talent for yourself.