by Marilyn Lester
Imagine the warmth and coziness of a Scottish pub on a cold wintry night, say in the lovely border town of Kelso. It’s a ceilidh, with good drink and plenty of camaraderie. There’s also the traditional music of the region, with tunes such as “Killiecrankie,” “Rolling Hills of the Borders” and “Baravan.” But you need not imagine if you hie yourself to the Heath at the McKittrick Hotel for the immersive tale of The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart. In this intimate setting, five incredibly talented Scots play out the account of the hapless Prudencia in prose narrative, rhyming couplets and music – making for an energetic, ingenious and gob-smacking evening of site-specific theater that won’t soon be forgotten.
Written by David Grieg and developed by the National Theater of Scotland, The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart was created in 2011 and designed to be toured and performed in pubs. The cast are multi-instrumentalists who also sing, dance and act up a storm. Their talent is mighty; their chemistry substantial; and their timing impeccable. They handle costume elements, props and audience members with avidity. (Yes, dear reader, you are not just an observer of this magical, mythic mayhem; you are a potential prop.) Playwright Grieg has crafted a rather brilliant performance piece based on folklore and an abundance of cultural references. Kelso is a real place, for instance – an ancient market town deemed by Sir Walter Scott as “the most beautiful, if not the most romantic town in Scotland.” There are, like Prudencia Hart, those who study the rich history of border ballads (an old art form of narrative verse recounting the lives of people and the events of southern Scotland and northern England) with under appreciation.
Prudencia’s strange undoing centers around one of the world’s oldest mythic archetypes: beating the Devil at his own game. Prudencia, an uptight academic, has specialized in “the topography of hell,” which she characterizes as “more about the way that folk, and folk songs tell Stories about the devil.” After attending an academic conference in Kelso, Prudencia finds herself trapped on Midwinter’s Night in a fierce snowstorm with a rival scholar, the yobbish Colin Syme. As they seek shelter from the storm, Prudencia and Colin are separated. Eventually, Prudencia is lured into a mystical journey of self discovery, unwittingly (or not) following the Devil into Hell – a Harry Potter-like B&B of infinite rooms, overlooking Kelso’s Costco parking lot. Over millennia, Prudencia is both repulsed and attracted to the Devil. In Hell, only prose is spoken, but her hell is also her heaven – filled with books and books galore. It also doesn’t hurt that the Devil is dead sexy. Inevitably, Prudencia’s defenses, which have been considerable, break down, and she is undone – but not so much that she eventually sees a way to beat the Devil. On another Midwinter’s Night, when the portal from the netherworld once again opens, the much wiser Prudencia returns to the year and place she started from, entering into the pub on a wild and wooly karaoke night.
Melody Grove as Prudencia, like all of the actors in The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, is casting perfection. Grove’s face communicates as much, if not more, as the text she speaks. She’s at once fierce and achingly vulnerable, and her comedic moments shine with brilliance. David Hannah as the handsome Devil strikes the right notes in achieving a balance in a kind of vestal evil, coupled with a similar sort of lust. Paul McCole as Prudencia’s academic rival, the cleverly uncouth Colin Syme, delivers testosterone-fueled silliness and lovability with comic precision. Playing multiple roles with stunning ability are Annie Grace and Alasdair Macrae (who is also Music Director of the production). Director Wils Wilson has deftly woven this superb tapestry of movement (with Movement Director, Janice Parker), acting, and much more, with superb skill. Designer Georgia McGuiness has also contributed significantly to the look and success of the show.
The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart is blazingly akin to the goofiness and lampooning of Monty Python (a type of humor excelled at in the UK). The satire is piercing, sharp and funny, yet respectful. The cultural observance is built on a richness of source material, yielding the piece deeply layered. There’s a lot to contemplate, and beneath that, even more. But best of all, when all is said and done, The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart is simply a darn good time.
The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, schedule varies, through Feb. 28, 2017 – 2 hours, 15 minutes.
The McKittrick Hotel, 542 West 27th Street, 212-564-1662, www.strangeundoing.com
Photos: Jenny Anderson