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BWW Review: MY JOY IS HEAVY! by The Bengsons from Arena Stage

A 27-minute musical about happiness and loss during a Covid winter

BWW Review: MY JOY IS HEAVY! by The Bengsons from Arena Stage

As we enter the second year of pandemic, theater companies have largely shifted from live performance spaces to film and video producers. When new work is offered, it streams online, often created by the artists themselves.

For a new series of song-based works from Arena Stage, artistic director Molly Smith commissioned new work from music-minded artists with some experience on stage. The first, "My Joy is Heavy!" comes from the first rate married couple and musical duo The Bengsons, who have previously channeled their exuberant, personal music through theatrical performances.

Their notable "Hundred Days," celebrated the meeting of Abigail and Shaun Bengson even as they imagined a time when death would do them part. Performed from San Francisco to New York to La Jolla to Florida, it got raves, awards and a cast album.

Working in the first few months of the pandemic at Shaun's parent's home in Dayton, Ohio, they mustered as much uplift as they could for "The Keep Going Song," a show presented (virtually, of course) through the Actors Theater of Louisville. Its title song captured and likely inspired 4 million viewers on YouTube, and maybe just nudged Smith to tap The Bengsons to create something for the series they're calling Arena Riffs.

Their remarkable submission - just 27 minutes, streaming free through the Arena website - shows the couple sharing their lives through the cruel winter of our pandemic, but also willing and very able to sing about it in real time.

By the time of its making, the two and their young son have made their way to her childhood home in snowy Vermont with the likely intent of chronicling their time there in song during an already strange time.

But open to the possibilities of what will happen - and openness is the vanguard of this duo, who are more honest to their songwriting than many people are to their own selves - they turned on cameras.

To their amusingly and typically chaotic pandemic era home - with instruments, toys, food, books and art strewn all about - they quietly deal with chronic pain (hers) and depression (his). But on top of this there is hope in the form of a pregnancy.

The blessed news comes with some worry; they've suffered a miscarriage once before and had complications with the birth of their son. Can they make it through the term without the worry? Would just being grateful and happy during the same period be a better approach? It wouldn't affect what would happen one way or another, and it may be healthier in the long run.

Such considerations are usually private matters. Even the notion of miscarriage is for some reason socially shrouded in silence, leaving shattered would-be parents to mourn alone. But The Bengsons find catharsis and direction through music and convey a triumphant humanity no matter what the obstacle. The result is a raw and personal expression, wrapped in splendid music and honesty.

Abigail Bengson is such a compelling, empathetic figure, with a voice grounded in a folk, shape note singing and gospel as she expresses herself further with upraised hands. Shaun's contributions include a deft melodic touch, technological prowess and musical ear that allows the inclusion of drums, guitar, accordion, and all manner of other instruments as well as harmony vocals often on backing tapes to give the duo an added grandeur.

And each of the songs are terrific; one an apology for how a bad pandemic era had gotten worse, another about light in the darkness, and one that recalls heartbreak but commits to happiness.

Visually, the piece is as bright as The Bengsons' surroundings (and outlook). They've learned the best from indie music videos and are able to convey the beauty and reality of Vermont winter while eking out metaphors in its landscape. Often, they jump and dance in their own kitchen, an intimacy that can't quite be replicated on stage.

Abigail once served as a background singer for Tune-Yards, but her expressive warmth is also memorable from her role in HBO's "High Maintenance" a year ago, as Kim, the intimacy coordinator who meets an asexual magician.

Here, it's no role at all, but real life and determinations with her husband and son, who makes a couple of key appearances.

Just by being so real and powerful, and serving as kind of an emotional catharsis for our own time of global trauma, "My Joy is Heavy!" raises the possibility of continued commissioned filmed projects from theater companies long after theaters reopen.

No doubt "My Joy is Heavy!" would be just as splendid live, but the ability to capture its creation in real time where it happened amid moving music that seems to pour forth simultaneously adds a much deeper impact.

Running time: Twenty-seven minutes, followed by a 15 minute discussion between The Bengsons and Molly Smith.

Photo: Abigail and Shaun Bengson.

"My Joy is Heavy!" is streaming free on YouTube. Other "Arena Riffs" are "The Freewheeling Insurgents" by Psalmayene 'Psalm" 24, which begins March 31 at 7 p.m. and "A More Perfect Union" by Rona Siddiqui April 14 at 7 p.m. Information can be found here.


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