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Review: Finding Joy in Grief in The Keep Going Songs

The Bengsons bring their new show to the Claire Tow Theater.

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Abigail and Shaun Bengson in The Keep Going Songs, directed by Caitlin Sullivan, at LCT3’s Claire Tow Theater.
(© Jeremy Daniel)

We’re often told that grief is something we experience in stages, moving through a series of painful steps before emerging at peace on the other side. But what if it doesn’t have to be that way? What if it’s possible to grieve while allowing ourselves to feel not just denial and anger, but joy?

That’s one of questions explored in Abigail and Shaun Bengson’s soul-stirring new show The Keep Going Songs, now running at LCT3’s Claire Tow Theater. Like their previous Hundred Days and The Lucky Ones, The Keep Going Songs is inspired by their lives, in this case the death of Abigail’s brother Peter last August at the age of 55 and their new roles as parents. It’s a one-of-a-kind theatrical-concert experience in which the husband-and-wife duo combine ephemeral moments of sadness, rapture, and transformation with their unique blend of musical genres like folk, rock, and punk.

“What’s gonna happen?” asks Abigail with a smile as we lean forward in anticipation. A vibrant shock of gray runs through her hair as she stands on a stage (set by Cate McCrea) made up of scenic props from past shows downstairs at the “big house” (the Vivian Beaumont Theater). Green streetlights and park benches (from The Skin of Our Teeth) topple over each other as though the world has gone topsy-turvy. Nearby, a Stonehenge-like arch of crates presides over an altar of discarded things. “This curtain is from The King and I,” she tells us, but, she adds, it comprises oil-based materials, which means it’s made of dinosaur fossils and ancient gingko trees. Everything was something else before.

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Abigail and Shaun Bengson in The Keep Going Songs, directed by Caitlin Sullivan, at LCT3’s Claire Tow Theater.
(© Jeremy Daniel)

The idea of the world being in a constant state of becoming runs like a river through the show, as we’re treated to quirky factoids about the natural world in the song “Awe”: queen bees have pockets that they use to carry bee semen, and millions of years ago, the lignans in trees caused a mass extinction … so “trees were dicks once too.” Other songs like “Fat” delve into the precariousness of a child surviving the birth process. Abigail delivers the lyrics in a flowsung style — melodious speech with an improvisational feel. Perhaps, like a river, it’s never the same song twice.

The incantatory quality of the music and lyrics — such as in Shaun’s dirge for his “sad friends,” “Heron and the Crow” — blends in with the show’s unique strain of ritual. But the Bengsons find the sacred in everyday things, not in organized religion. Abigail’s idea of Communion is sharing a pint of Guinness, Peter’s favorite drink, with audience members. “This is for Peter, and for all of our dead,” she says, raising a glass. “And for everything that died to make this room, that we are now so alive in” — truly mirth in funeral.

Director Caitlin Sullivan takes the mirth in a more surreal direction in the show’s second half. Abigail and Shaun speak less between songs and instead whale on the guitars and synths, looping samples of their voices to create wild tribal soundscapes (Nick Kourtides’s excellent sound design makes us feel like we’re at a rock concert without blasting our ears). Alejandro Fajardo dims the house lights and bathes the stage in red for Shaun’s song “Crab” (“In times of great great change,” he sings, “Creatures turn into crabs”), after which he twists in a comically convulsive dance as he pretends to become one (an enormous cardboard claw by Hahnji Jang completes the costume).

There’s a serious whimsy to these later songs, a playfulness that has its eye on something deeper. The Keep Going Songs is a wake in one sense, for Peter and others who’ve been lost, but it’s also a call to keep going by finding joy at the center of sadness. “I want you to want to live!” they and the audience sing at the end as we stand up and clap together. It’s not church, but it sure does feel a lot like being saved.

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