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Theatre in Review: The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart (National of Theatre Scotland)

Melody Grove. Photo: Jenny Anderson.

The McKittrick Hotel, that West Chelsea pile that pretends to be a relic of the gilded age, where these days masked guests roam the halls chasing after the Macbeth-inspired intrigues of the immersive experience known as Sleep No More, is now also the setting for The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart. The talented people at the National Theatre of Scotland have carved out a space for themselves, making it into an authentic-looking Victorian pub where the beer and whiskey flows freely -- not to mention specialty cocktails -- and sandwiches are passed around at intermission. Once we've found our places at the tables that fill the room, a quintet of fine actors spins the tale of Prudencia, a young lady who, in pursuit of her heart's desire, discovers the price of her soul.

It may seem counterintuitive, but the old-fashioned tavern atmosphere plays host to a story that, for the first act at least, is a wicked spoof of modern academia. Prudencia is a scholar, specializing in Scottish folk studies, which she loves for its melancholy poetry and romantic longing. Her matricular thesis is "Walter Scott's Minstrelsy of the Scottish Border" followed by a doctoral study titled "The Topography of Hell." It's a title laced with an irony that she will come to appreciate.

Anyway, to her horror, Prudencia finds herself at a conference titled (Border Ballads, neither Border nor Ballad?). The punctuation is as trendy as the papers presented. One scholar announces that a dirge known as "The Border Widow's Lament" is really a celebration of marriage. The eccentrically spelled Siolaigha Smith (her spelling) takes a feminist view, announcing, "That ballads come not from the borders -- no indeed/But they are born from the vaginal tweed." Then Colin, Prudencia's colleague and part-time antagonist, announces that reality TV and hip-hop are equally as deserving of study as musty, centuries-old ditties. Speaking of Sir Walter Scott, Colin asserts, "Everybody knows his plan/Was to respond to the 18th century popularity of Ossian/By collecting Scots poems, laments, and sagas/To create a 'Scottish' identity 'every bit as artificial as Lady Gaga's'." To which a commentator adds, "Putting 'Scottish' in air quote/Made Prudencia want to punch him in the throat."

Fed up with such nonsense and prevented from fleeing by a raging snowstorm, Prudencia ends up in a bed-and-breakfast in a seedy neighborhood, where she discovers a stunningly capacious library, containing virtually every book she ever wanted to read. Her initial reaction is one of unreserved joy, but then she is told that she cannot leave. And then she notices that the proprietor has an insinuating, unsettling manner -- and a pair of hooves where his feet should be.

As the quotes above indicate, much of The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart is written in rhymed couplets, with all five actors narrating and taking on roles as needed. The first act in particular is rife with lovely turns of phrase. Describing a blizzard, someone says, "All across Scotland, there's a great white falling down of the sky." Prudencia greets the tepid reaction to her paper with "a girlishly defeated frown." A pub karaoke night gets out of hand, ending up "like something out of Bruegel." Colin is wickedly described as "a typical sort of a lad who'd have an iPhone or a pod or a pad/Any new gadget whatever was in vogue/And his ringtone would have to be Kylie Minogue." Even with such a charming cast and intriguing story, the first half of the show easily coasts on his lovely, lyric, laughing words.

Once Prudencia is in the underworld, poetry is replaced by prose and although the words remain highly literate, the fun is lessened somewhat. She is entranced by the volumes at her fingertips, so much so that the centuries fly by. Even when she becomes surprisingly attached to her captor, she yearns to return to her old life. She ultimately makes a startling re-entry to this mortal coil and faces up to her problems, including what to do with Colin, whom she finds irresistible, despite his penchant for titles like "The Pastoral Tradition as Expressed in Modern Terrace Culture, or 'Sheep Shagging Bastards'."

David Greig, a writer who never fails to surprise -- he was last seen with The Events, at New York Theatre Workshop, a play that requires the services of a full choir -- and while one at times wonders what the point of Prudencia's story may be, it is undeniably entertaining to watch this gifted, nimble cast work the room, acting, playing musical instruments, and occasionally commandeering one of the audience's tables to make a point. Melody Grove's Prudencia is radiant in her defense of literary romance -- "Why don't you believe in beauty anymore?" she asks in anguish of her colleagues -- and is also surprised to find herself falling for her satanic captor even as she plots her escape. Paul McCole makes Colin into a rollicking sort of rascal, always ready for the next big thing in academia. Peter Hannah is both creepy and a plausible object of desire as he who would keep Prudencia forever in the land of shades. Annie Grace and Alasdair Macrae round out the cast, delivering Greig's verse with real verve and also joyfully taking part in the many musical sequences. The director, Wils Wilson, has seemingly effortlessly imposed a unifying style on these shenanigans, which often draw the audience into the action.

Georgia McGuinness is the only designer credited, so I assume she came up with the pub setting, casual costumes, and lighting that mostly consists of a general wash with a few subtle modulations. Once in a while I wished the actors' faces were easier to read but, overall, the production has a unified feel that goes a long way toward drawing us into Prudencia's peculiar odyssey.

If there's a deeper point here, I totally missed it. The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart is best enjoyed as a rattling yarn told in a pub setting among friends, the fun enhanced by libations and an audience willing to join in. (Definitely plan to go with a crowd of at least four.) It's an evening of learned tomfoolery, elegantly done. -- David Barbour

(14 December 2016)

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