The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart
One door down from Sleep No More, that indispensable immersive spin on Macbeth, a new Scottish play has taken up residence. David Greig's The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, a visiting production from the National Theatre of Scotland, feels right at home in the furtive confines of the McKittrick Hotel's restaurant, the Heath. The bewitching atmosphere perfectly sets the mood for an unforgettable theatrical experience, driven by brave performances and resourceful staging.
The National Theatre of Scotland is best known in New York for Black Watch, Gregory Burke's pulse-quickening portrait of a Scottish army regiment in Iraq that played a couple of sold-out runs at St. Ann's Warehouse. Prudencia Hart is not nearly as extravagant (or loud) as that landmark production, but Greig's playful use of language and magpie instinct toward mythology results in an enchanting story that will stay with you for days after.
Prudencia Hart (Melody Grove) is an academic specializing in Scottish folk music, specifically the topography of hell as revealed in ballads. One snowy day she drives to Kelso for a conference where she is roundly dismissed as "traditional" by her post-post-structuralist colleagues. Her arch nemesis, Dr. Colin Syme (Paul McCole), thrills the room with a talk about the folkloric relevance of reality TV and Lady Gaga. Prudencia has to resist the urge to punch him when he puts the word "Scottish" in air quotes. She ends the talk by clumsily falling off the stage.
To add insult to injury, the heavy snowfall buries Prudencia's car, trapping her in Kelso. There is only one vacant room left in town and she has to share it with Colin. After a night of heavy drinking at a local pub, she gets lost on her way to the bed-and-breakfast. She sees a woman in a white coat (a ghostly Annie Grace) singing a haunting ballad in the middle of a snowbound housing estate. The woman urges her to stay with her, but Prudencia declines and is soon after discovered by Nick (Peter Hannah), an employee at the B&B who went out into the storm to find her. But Nick, who makes no tracks in the snow and possesses a giant library of rare books, might not be who he says he is.
Greig plays with our expectations by presenting the above exposition in rhyming verse, as if it were a fairytale (but with salty adult language). The meter breaks down when Nick appears, establishing a dramatic friction between prose and verse that doesn't fully reveal itself until the final scenes after a series of fantastical events that I will not divulge here.
Luckily, everyone in this excellent five-person cast seem perfectly at ease enacting whatever Greig has written while creating specific and consistent characters. Wearing a tweed jacket and blood-red stockings, Grove fully inhabits the role of Prudencia, a prim schoolmarm disgusted by the vulgar world around her. As Nick, Hannah inserts an element of dangerous seduction into the story. McCole's Colin is arrogant and somewhat ridiculous, but his subtle charm is an acquired taste, like a particularly peaty whisky.
While the Heath, with its eerie Scotch inflections, feels like the ideal setting for this magical play, director Wils Wilson's resourceful staging could take place at any bar or pub. The actors move among us to create the tale. The bow of a violin becomes a windshield wiper. A flurry of torn-up cocktail napkins becomes a snowstorm. A red rubber dish glove becomes the hand of Satan himself.
Georgia McGuinness has designed the whole show with evocative precision. Hannah's perfectly tailored white three-piece suit has an untouched quality, while an audaciously high heel (for a man) makes his boot look like a hoof. McGuinness eschews typical theatrical lighting. Instead, overhead globes give the feeling of midnight, while the resourceful Prudencia's flashlight rescues us from total darkness during a power outage.
Music director Alasdair Macrae (who also appears as an actor) is similarly inventive in the creation of sound: Clinking wine glasses signify the fall of snow while a groaning hand organ underscores the heartbreaking, unavoidable passage of time. The actors sing from the moment we enter the door and don't stop until we leave. This is a ceilidh at which traditional scotch music and Kylie Minogue dance together.
The National Theatre of Scotland has an impressive knack for finding the mythic in the mundane. While The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart has all the makings of a Hollywood rom-com, in which conflicting personalities are drawn together by circumstance, the creators boldly take us on the road less traveled. It is definitely not the most prosaic way to tell this age-old story, but by the end of the night, we appreciate getting to spend two hours in pure poetry.