The Review: ArsNova’s The Lucky Ones
At some point during last fall’s NYTW production of the Bengson’s Hundred Days, Abigail Bengson briefly mentions a terrible thing that happened just before the story they are about to tell, but that story is a different one, and will not be told during this show. It was an intriguing aside, leaving me wondering, but only momentarily, as Hundred Days swept us away with it’s gorgeousness; a beautiful story of two souls coming together when things felt so bad all around them, and through love and some intense deliberate action, found love and connection. It’s romantic and “glorious, these Hundred Days, and spellbinding”, filling our hearts with warmth and engagement. The two talented characters who make up this folk/rock duo, The Bengsons, Abigail and Shaun (ArsNova/WP’s Sundown, Yellow Moon), created magic with their folk rock storytelling, and with the help of the rest of their band magically transported us from a concert setting to a place far up into heaven with a skill and a clarity that was astounding. Now, with their new pseudo-folk/rock opera/performance story-telling piece, The Lucky Ones, Abigail and Shaun have created another show that once again is very hard to categorize. It is thrillingly awesome, assembling a large diverse cast of talented creatures to create a tale on a much bigger canvas. It’s that same story that the two alluded to in the earlier show, and one I was not prepared for, for I had forgotten, but luckily, was quickly reminded of.
In many ways, The Lucky Ones is the polar opposite of Hundred Days. Still glorious and amazingly creative, this particular tale goes at the world in reverse, starting in a beautiful romanticized nirvana, but then taking us down deep inside some heavy ass trauma, getting our hearts broken and our engagement devastated. The cast is uniformly excellent, chanting us into the history of this story from all sides like a primal pack of ancients. Inviting us, with a sudden wave of emotion inside my heart that I didn’t anticipate, to come down the stairs and join them all for a family breakfast of eggs. It fills our hearts with joy and warmth, this summoning, and we gladly accept. Myra Lucretia Taylor (PH’s Familiar) is Mother Sherrill, and she feels like a big warm hug surrounded with a glorious depth. Maryann Plunkett (Public’s Gabriel Family Plays) is Aunt Mary (I also have an Aunt Mary, and I couldn’t help but relate), a second mother to the family and to young Abigail (Abigail Bengson), portrayed with every ounce of empathetic kindness that can be created within her big smile as she watches from the side. It’s such a glory to behold, like a mother watching her children create a mosaic. And then there is Father Tom, played with a strange aura of distance by Tom Nelis (Broadway’s The Visit). He doesn’t connect at first (which makes complete sense later on), feeling like the man on the outside looking in on his overflowing family, a unit that also includes two sets of similarly aged cousins: the older pair, Amber, played solidly by Amelia Workman (Atlantic’s On The Shore…) and Phoebe, portrayed by the very clear Jennifer Morris (The Civilians’ Mr. Burns), and the younger two, Emily, heroically portrayed by Ashley Pérez Flanagan (NYTW’s Hadestown) and the totally charming Kai, played with an alarming magnificence by Damon Daunno (Broadway’s Brief Encounter).
There is a choir what surrounds us with sound and visuals, that enhances the moment, but sometimes distracts, made up of an ensemble of very talented singers and dancers creating so much spirit and energy it’s sometimes hard to take in (Mia DeWeese, Tilly Evans-Krueger, Lenin Fernandez, Lindsey Hailes, Ida Saki, and Zach McNally – the angelic one). And the two awesome musicians that help Shaun Bengson fill in the sound, Dani Markham and Pearl Rhein. It’s larger in size then the past show, but so is this story. This one is of a grander more complicated nature, and even though it falters within these grander aspects, the overall is stunningly powerful and uniquely engaging.
It’s music to our ears, this first moment of chaos, filling us with a big old warm cup of Abigail’s family history. The Bengsons are credited with the music, lyrics, book (with Sarah Gancher), orchestrations, and arrangements, and with the help of director Anne Kauffman (NYTW’s Mary Jane) the whole arrangement feels like we are being initiated into a family of joyful and angelic musicians and folk heroes, where the men and women have wings made to fly, mainly because they all have been taught to have no fear. Then, into this clamorous school of acceptance walks the beautiful and enticingly shy Emma, played with an effortless wonder by the hypnotizing Adina Verson (Broadway’s Indecent) and we are instantly smitten much like the rest of the family. The romance that blooms from this center is heart breakingly beautiful, magnetic, and as lovely as a “four o’clock flower“. Watching her character find the joy within herself and the arms of Kai is freeing, especially when surrounded by the well constructed bonfire of youth, well orchestrated by the wondrous set designer, Rachel Huack (Latin History for Morons) and lighting designer Amith Chandrashaker (2ST’s Cardinal). The pack of teenagers, flying around one another with energy and glory, especially during the wondrous dismantling of the fire, are choreographed with an athletic wisdom by Sonya Tayeh (the upcoming Moulin Rouge! -which I can’t wait to see in Boston in July). The fanatic flying of bodies just adds to the moment, as does the organic feel for costumes by Ásta Bennie Hostetter (PR’s The Rape of the Sabine…), sound by Nick Kourtides (NYTW/BAM’s Object Lesson), and props by Noah Mease (Broadway’s Natasha, Pierre…). Until the Angel (McNally) calls, and the punch and shift comes with a devastating blow. I’ll say no more about it.
I’m not sure I appreciated or needed the words from Shaun closing out Act One, it feels too theatrical and out-of-place at the moment of true heart-wrenching emotionality created by this wonderful company. It did, in a way free myself for the intermission, but I’m not sure that is the intention or the desire. But the last image of Abigail’s story at the end of the first act feels like a burning to the ground of all that we fell in love with. We feel forced to find the ogre in the room of this weird hippy family, questioning all that it stood for and what it all meant. The repeating of the answering machine recording and the distance that Abigail and the rest had to travel to try to find security again, tells a whole other tale that is wrought with questions, and no easy answers. How is anyone still standing, one might ask, as Abigail does, and the answer is magnificent in its migrating imagery and symbolic meaning. It’s obvious this is a tale that Abigail needed to tell, and Shaun does his best to play a part in this tragic story of breaking and healing of the battered and bruised, but his role feels like an artificial stretch, dragging a bit of those Hundred Days into the story, the family, and its messed up dynamics. I did miss him and his quirky persona in this telling, but don’t fault them for his secondary role, as it appears that Shaun played an instrumental part (not just physically, even though he is a magnificent musician) in helping at least Abigail get to a place where this monstrous story can be told. Can something good come from this story and its telling? I would say so, as there is a real beauty and dramatic power in this heartache. It’s not as neatly packaged as the other, nor as uplifting. While the previous show, Hundred Days, felt poetic and symbolic, this show, The Lucky Ones, feels like a rocking athletic roller coaster ride, through pain and trauma, hoping to come out at the end shaken and wind-blown, but feeling the gasp and the grabbing hold of survival.