"The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart" is theater well done!
When you’re carded by an amiable bouncer on your way into the performance space and the house manager asks if you want to sit in the rowdy section or the tame section and you arrive at your seat to find your table-mates shredding paper napkins into “snow” at the direction of a cast member, signs point to the fact that you are in for a not-typical night of theater—a promise on which National Theatre of Scotland’s (NTS) The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart more than delivers. Produced in DC by Shakespeare Theatre Company in one of the pub spaces at the Bier Barron Hotel and Bar, this inventive production is equal parts morality play, commedia dell’arte, love story, highly interactive cabaret, and a bildungsroman for late bloomers.
With Melody Grove as the lead character Prudencia Hart, an earnest scholar of “the topography of hell” as seen through Scottish border ballads, the rest of the five-person ensemble admirably morphs through a range of characters from pedantic, post-post-modern folklore scholars to drunken karaoke-singing pub harpies to not just one but two Lucifers. The inspired setting allows the action to unfold in a multitude of areas throughout the space with the backs of patron chairs occasionally serving as costume storage and occupied four-tops becoming impromptu stages from which the ensemble soliloquizes, rhapsodizes, and yarn-spins. It also allows for a high level of intimacy and audience interactivity from encouraging the crowd to “wave their hands in the air” as they sing a “Guantanamera”-based football chant to receiving “boozy” actor hugs during the recounting of a decidedly raucous night out.
As with Black Watch, another recent local offering by NTS, Strange Undoing is permeated by song and sound, from the haunting native ballads that open each half to an unexpectedly poignant cover of a Kylie Minogue hit to the intermittent sounding of a crystal glass counting off time’s passing. Each of the five actors also picks up an instrument at some point, including a banjo, bagpipes, and a bodhran (Celtic drum), among others. The production is also marked by an intense physicality, including near-balletic sequences that transcend mere mime and a particularly splendid moment when the troupe forms a motor-car with their bodies, complete with a fiddle bow- turned-windshield wiper .
In an unusual move for a contemporary English-language playwright, David Grieg’s script is rendered largely in rhyme. At times the language is Seussical and played for laughs, but deft handling by the ensemble and a staunch resistance to perpetually punching the end rhyme (we’ve all been to those poetry readings) keeps the language lyrical rather than cumbersome. Strange Undoing poses a Matryoshka doll of questions unfolding as the play progresses: Do we really learn anything useful from studying the past? What do we lose when our cultural history is reduced to a Facebook status or Tweet? Is having everything we’ve ever wanted really worth the price we pay? What is beauty, and, as Prudencia asks, “Why don’t any of you believe in beauty anymore?” The tension inherent in these opposing ideas is ably captured in the play’s form itself. At heart Strange Undoing is a very modern story of a woman trying to find herself---her own song---played out using ancient story-telling techniques of rhyme, song, pantomime, and dress-up..
Strange Undoing is not without its faults. An extended retelling of a night of debauchery eventually felt like one of those Saturday Night Live skits that keep going long past funny to painful, and the first half of the second act lacked the energy of the play’s first half—though that might have been because the play suddenly became mostly a two-hander. And depending on your seat, following the action can involve a high degree of neck craning.
That being said, there is much to admire about Strange Undoing—certainly the fine ensemble work and Wils Wilson's quirky “never mind the fourth wall” staging. At one point, a character advises, “Whatever it is you want, the opposite is always the right answer.” The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart looks to the forms and modes of the past to sketch the future, mirroring Prudencia’s own oppositional journey, losing the self she knows in order to find her true self. In other words, Strange Undoing is very well done indeed.
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