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Gut Reactions: Z Space and Impact Compel Crying and Hurling from Their Captive Audiences 

Wednesday, Mar 26 2014

The plot of Hundred Days, an "indie rock opera" now at Z Space, could not be simpler. Boy meets girl. Boy marries girl. Boy gets sick and dies. Girl leaves their self-made citadel and re-enters the world.

But if that seems an impressionistic wisp of a tale, indie rock duo the Bengsons, who created and perform the show (and who are married in real life), elevate it to modern-day myth. When Will (Shaun Bengson) is diagnosed with terminal illness — "There's a creature inside his bones" — he and Sarah (Abigail Bengson) decide to imagine and then live the rest of their lives together in just 100 days. They shut themselves off from the rest of the world: no friends, no family, no leaving their apartment. They envision and enact spats, birthdays, surprises. But as the "years" speed by, Will's impending death slows the couple down, so that they seem to age onstage before us: Successive wedding anniversaries seem halfhearted, then sad. Then their grand vision, part self-deception, part survival mechanism, crumbles, and, clear-eyed, they must piece together a new, harder-edged life for the short time they still have it.

Hundred Days mines the range of the human heart. If Will and Sarah's lives begin small — he grows up emotionally abandoned by an ice-cold father; she spends her childhood with only cabinets as friends — love and its attendant rage, joy, despair, and resignation enlarge them.

The Bengsons' songs — and they're freakin' catchy, which almost never happens with new musicals — are total immersions into feeling. Z Space is one of the boldest and most committed new work incubators in the Bay Area; like many shows it produces, Hundred Days was developed over a very long period — three years — and the team's depth of thought comes through in a marriage of song, light, performance, and staging.

In one dazzling choice, as the couple cements their isolation, director Anne Kauffman clears the stage of all the band members, back-up singers, and platforms that had heretofore crowded it, piece by piece of seemingly fixed equipment unhitching and then floating offstage, until all that is left is a giant cavern, empty but for the couple, a table, and chairs. It's a space for make-believe, a space to be harrowingly alone, a space to be broken down in sadness but left in strength.

If Hundred Days elevates humankind, Bread and Circuses, at Impact Theatre, knocks us back to the dirt — the blood-caked, hair-strewn dirt. This compilation of short plays, written by a who's-who of current playwriting talent (Steve Yockey, Dave Holstein, Prince Gomolvilas, Lauren Yee, Lauren Gunderson, Declan Greene, Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, Ross Maxwell, and JC Lee) and directed by Desdemona Chiang, all center on the idea of violence as entertainment. Some are more oblique, as in Aguirre-Sacasa's Insect Love, which for a long time looks like a slow-boiling romance between a lab assistant (Maria Giere Marquis) and an entomologist (Maro Guevara) until the black eye that in a melodrama would have turned up the heat inexplicably ends the play; or Greene's inscrutable piece, Marimba, which features a man (Eric Kerr) at a desk under interrogation lighting who resets every time his phone rings, saying the same few lines he said at the beginning: "Hi, my name is Eric Kerr." But with each new iteration, driven by some unexplained menace, he compulsively chatters his way elsewhere, sometimes making sense, sometimes not. In Kerr's excellent, tightly coiled performance, the piece seems to speak to the folly and horror of torture; whether that is in fact its connection to the evening's theme, Kerr's thoughtful portrait of a desperate, trapped man unnerves.

Most of the shorts in the bill, however, are shining examples of Impact's specialty: gleefully grotesque camp, performed as cartoon. One piece, Lee's The Reanimation of Marlene Dietrich, made me do something I'd never before done in a lifetime of theatergoing: repeatedly dry-heave. It was glorious. The olfactory combination of grocery store cake frosting (which, when plastered across the face, makes skin look pulpy, oozing), pools of red food coloring and pizza wafting from upstairs (the theater is in the basement of a pizza joint) is evidently a potent recipe, particularly when the cake-slobbering of a zombie-Marlene Dietrich (Marquis) splatters collateral damage over the already shattered fourth wall and into your lap.

Be warned, prudish audiences: Theater in the Bay Area this month might stir your bodily fluids, be they tears or gastric juices.

About The Author

Lily Janiak

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