Life, death and more fill Will Eno’s Wakey, Wakey at ACT

Wakey 1
Guy (Tony Hale) asks the audience to follow him in an exercise of imagination in Will Eno’s Wakey, Wakey performing at ACT’s Geary Theater. Below: Lisa (Kathryn Smith-McGlynn) stretches as Guy rests. Photos by Kevin Berne

When you write about theater, you tend to take notes while watching the show whenever a line or a moment triggers the part of your brain that says, “Oh, I’d like to mention that later.” During Will Eno’s Wakey, Wakey now at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater, the first half had me writing so fast and furiously I finally just had to stop writing entirely and simply absorb the show.

This isn’t surprising in that Eno is one of the most interesting playwrights in the theaterverse. He’s weird and brilliant, funny and deeply humane. Because there can be an oblique and highly theatrical quality to his work, he has often been compared to Beckett, but for me, I feel more Thornton Wilder (somewhere between The Skin of Our Teeth and Our Town). He wrestles in creative and insightful and surprising ways with what it is to be alive and how we’re all connected by the knowledge that none of us is getting out of here alive and that we could all probably be doing better when it comes to being aware of our lives as we’re living them.

Wakey, Wakey,, like other Eno works, defies easy description. There are people and things happen, but where they are and what exactly they’re doing isn’t clear. And it doesn’t need to be. We’re all here and this is happening. Director Anne Kauffman eases us into this world, helps us relax and just take the play as it comes without expectations that this is going to follow the rules and rhythms of plays we’ve experienced before.

The play begins with a prologue of sorts, The Substitution, about a community college driver’s ed class where the substitute teacher (Kathryn Smith-McGlynn) shakes things up by not behaving the way the students expect her to and ends up giving them something far more interesting (if inscrutable) than the rules of the road.

Then the play begins in earnest with the appearance of Guy (Tony Hale), about whom we know nothing except that our first encounter with him finds him face down on the floor minus his pants. Seconds later, his pants are on, he’s sitting in a wheelchair and he’s talking directly to us.

Wakey 2

Apparently we’re all here for some sort of presentation (well, yes, isn’t that what a play is?). Guy is offering, with the help of some notecards, a semi-inspirational TED-ish talk about the nature of time and about how this is not really how it was supposed to be. The setting (by designer Kimie Nishikawa) is a nondescript auditorium or multipurpose room in some sort of civic or educational institution or perhaps a place where people live together or are receiving treatment. Again, details are sketchy and it doesn’t really matter (although I have theories, and I’m certain they’re all 100% accurate).

What Guy does (or did) before being in this room with us is not known. If he has connections to other people (spouse, child, friends), that also remains a mystery. He’s going to engage us as best he can and share a little of what he knows about life but with lots of distractions and asides. Hale’s basic likability is essential here. We know and love the actor from his incredible work making misfits lovable on “Arrested Development” (Buster) and “VEEP” (Gary) and most recently as the voice of Forky in Toy Story 4 (talk about an existential crisis). None of the quirks we might recognize from other characters inform Guy, who is clearly a kind person if somewhat frustrated by his current situation. So even though we don’t know much about Guy, we like him and connect with him and want him to succeed in this endeavor, even as it seems to grow increasingly difficult for him.

There is another character, possibly someone we met in the prologue (or someone else entirely), and that character helps clarify (a little) what we’re actually witnessing.

Wakey, Wakey feels like more of an experience than a play, one that lingers as a feeling (or an avalanche of feelings) rather than as conundrum we have to pick apart and solve. There’s a lot about death here – does the title refer to a gentle way of rousing a sleeping child or is it a play on the gathering we have after a funeral? – and as a result, it’s positively hopeful and life affirming. This rich experience – barely 90 minutes – is also funny, moving and inspiring. There are so many things we can do with the limited time we’re given. Absorbing Wakey, Wakey would be a good use of that time.

Will Eno’s Wakey, Wakey continues through Feb. 16 at American Conservatory Theater’s Geary Theater, 415 Geary St., San Francisco. Tickets are $15-$110. Call 415-749-2228 or visit

Life, love, kick-ass music in Bengsons’ Hundred Days

Hundred Days 1
Abigail Bengson and Shaun Bengson, the husband-and-wife duo known as The Bengsons, star in the ravishing new rock musical Hundred Days, a world premiere at Z Space. Below: The complete Hundred Days company (from left): Amy Lizardo, Melissa Kaitlyn Carter, El Beh, Kate Kilbane, Abigail Bengson, Geneva Harrison, Shaun Bengson, Joshua Pollock, Dalane Mason, Reggie White. Photos by James Faerron

In those moments, when the music and voices are soaring, the drums are pounding, the feet are stomping and the hands are clapping, there’s no better place to be than sitting in Z Space fully immersed in the glorious new rock musical Hundred Days.

A creation by The Bengsons, the musical duo comprising spouses Abigail Bengson and Shaun Bengson, Hundred Days is an unconventional musical that is so much more than it seems. Director Anne Kauffman and book writer Kate E. Ryan have taken everything glorious about The Bengsons – including the passion, the humor, the warmth, the soul-stirring music – and helped craft a canny show about what it is to live and to love in the truest, most wholehearted sense.

Hundred Daysbegins as a casual affair. The cavernous Z Space theater looks like it’s set up for a rock concert. The great wall of windows, which is usually covered by heavy drapes to make it seem less industrial and more theatrical, is fully exposed, so headlights of passing cars are visible throughout the two-hour show. The 11 members of the ensemble, musicians and singers, ambles out, and The Bengsons take their places in front, music stand in front of them to help guide their way into the show.

If this musical ended up being like GrooveLily’s Striking 12, an excellent storytelling rock concert musical, that would not be a bad thing. The Bengsons begin telling their story of a young couple, Sarah and Will, who meet at a party, quickly fall in love and just as quickly get married. The bulk of Act 1 is telling their romantic tale punctuated by rousing songs that have the foot-stomping, feel-good-folk vibe that has made groups like Mumford and Sons, The Lumineers and Edward Sharpe and the Magnetic Zeros so beloved. A concert/play by The Bengsons and company would be more than worth attending.

Hundred Days 2

But this is where the clever construction of the show factors in. Once Sarah and Will’s story is established, life throws them a big curveball. Will is diagnosed with a terminal diseases and has, at best, 100 days left. So this young couple throws the curveball a curveball by making a bold choice. They will live the rest of their lives, fully and eventfully, in those 100 days even if it means they have to shut out the rest of the world and kick their willing suspension of disbelief into high gear to do it.

By Act 2, we’re in a totally different show. Even Kris Stone’s seemingly non-set set has revealed some surprises (including a stunning “sands in the hourglass” effect), and the storytelling is shared by actor/singers Reggie D. White and Amy Lizardo, who play Sarah and Will alongside The Bengsons. This is the only place where the show falters, and it has nothing to do with White or Lizardo, who both make strong impressions. It’s just that The Bengsons make such a strong connection that it’s hard to relinquish any of their storytelling time to anyone else. The other Sarah and Will execute the gentle, emotionally driven choreography by Joe Goode, they sing well, and they enact the willful fast forward of the young couple’s marriage. But then a song like “Three Legged Dog” comes along in which Abigail Bengson rips the show to shreds with her searing vocal performance – part Alanis Morissette, part tribal warrior, part Edith Piaf – and it’s hard to track anyone else within the story.

It seems that part of the reason for the shadow actors is to keep an emotional remove as a way to banish sentimentality in the telling of a sad story. But the show and the score are sturdy enough to withstand any amount of sentimentality, which is primarily wrought here through the raw emotion of the Begnsons’ songs, which are so powerfully performed by their composers and by the entire company.

There’s some DNA from other unconventional musicals here – Passing Strange, Spring Awakening, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Once – but Hundred Days feels like such an authentic piece of The Bengsons that comparisons ultimately fail to convey just how vital Abigail and Shaun are to this beguiling enterprise. Sure, other people could do it, but it’s hard to imagine a connection – to the material, to the ensemble, to the audience – as strong as theirs.

Hundred Days is a glorious creation encompassing joy, grief and transcendence, sometimes within the space of a single song. The show should go on to have a long, vibrant life because, in the words of the show, it’s a “pin in the map” experience.

[bonus video]
Please enjoy The Bengsons and company performing the song “Hundred Days.” I am a universe indeed.

Hundred Days continues an extended run through April 13 at Z Space, 450 Florida St., San Francisco. Tickets are $10-$100. Call 866-811-4111 or visit