The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart comes to the PuSh Festival (in a co-presentation with The Cultch) from the National Theatre of Scotland, whose recent credits include such acclaimed works as Blackwatch and a one-man Macbeth starring Alan Cumming that is heading to Broadway this spring.
Written by David Greig (The American Pilot), Prudencia tells the story of its eponymous heroine (played by a radiant Melody Grove), a folklorist from Edinburgh who studies the border ballads. Famously compiled by Sir Walter Scott in his 1802 volume The Minstrelsy of Scotland, these narrative songs from the Middle Ages tell of raids and battles along and across the border between England and Scotland, but also frequently recount supernatural events, including encounters with the devil. It is the latter kind of ballad that is of most interest to Prudencia, a traditionalist whose focus on form, thematic content, and social history puts her at odds with her "post-post-structuralist" academic colleagues, including motorcycle-driving arch-nemesis Colin Syme (Paul McCole), who sees the border ballads as of a piece with the tribalism of contemporary football songs. When, following a humiliating panel discussion at a conference, Prudencia and Colin find themselves marooned in a tiny Highland town because of a snow storm, the strangeness of Prudencia's undoing kicks into overdrive. First, there are the local denizens (Alasdair Macrae, Annie Grace, and David McKay) of the pub Colin and Prudencia stumble upon, who proceed to re-enact the previous night's ribald revelries for the one among them who cannot remember what happened. Then there is the B&B into which Colin has booked Prudencia and himself, and toward which Prudencia, escaping the pub sans Colin, blindly stumbles at the midnight hour of the winter solstice, only to find herself a captive of its owner, who is--you guessed it--the devil himself (McKay again)
In other words, Prudencia goes from studying the ballads as historical artifacts to living her own very real version of one--which, when she discovers the infinite holdings of her host's library, is maybe not so bad a place to spend eternity. But hell, in this case, is other people's footnotes, and when she stumbles upon the proceedings of the conference that precipitated her undoing, Prudencia decides it's time to escape the underworld and slip back through the crack in the pavement of the Costco parking lot and join the world she left behind. Fortunately, her intimate understanding of the balladic tradition means she knows what she needs to supercede its narrative clutches: a knight and his steed, or in this case a pot-bellied professor and his motorcycle.
All of this is told interactively, the venue for the production (in this case a perfectly cast WISE Hall) doubling as the pub Prudencia and Colin stumble upon, and with other scenes--many of them highly physical--told in and around patrons' tables. Additionally this means that depending on where one chooses to sit, one might find oneself at any moment conscripted as part of the action. But thoroughly charmed by the story being told (not to mention the free dram of whiskey warming our bellies), we willingly comply, seduced by the enthusiasm and charisma and incredible talent of all the performers, who in addition to fully inhabiting their respective characters, also sing and play a host of traditional instruments, including fiddle, table accordion, guitar, bagpipes, and several types of recorder.
Oh yeah, and they also speak in rhyming couplets, the measure of any successful ballad story being, of course, the strength of its meter. On all counts, this production definitely adds up.