More theater should begin with a free scotch tasting. It loosens up the audience to the point where boisterous mirth is inevitable, which is what the creators of The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart want. Instead of a stuffy auditorium, the co-production of The Shakespeare Theater Company and the National Theater of Scotland happens in a bar. There is more beer than the typical theater performance, so the atmosphere is relatively relaxed. That does not mean, however, that the undoing is unprofessional or sloppy. Hilarious and a little profound, the play features an orgy before it considers the infinite.
There is enough room in the top room of Bier Baron (formerly the Brickskellar) for about sixty. Five actors, all of whom play multiple parts, weave through the bar and provide poetic narration. Sometimes there are long scenes where two characters speak eloquently, and there are multiple karaoke sequences. Written by David Greig, the play challenges and upholds basic theater fundamentals by mixing highbrow ideas with lowbrow comedy. A young audience member did not seem to mind when two actors grinded up against him like that old Saturday Night Live sketch. When the comedy veers toward a dark supernatural drama, the cast has no trouble with the transition.
Prudencia Hart is an academic and Scotland’s expert on Satan’s depiction in literature. She’s reserved and intellectually conservative: she’s infuriated when her post-modernist colleague Colin posits that Facebook updates are the modern of equivalent of folk ballads. To her chagrin, Pru is stuck with Colin and a bunch of drunken yokels after a blizzard hits Kelso, a small town she’s visiting for an academic conference. Everyone seeks shelter in a pub, one where the Romanesque partying gets more than a little weird. Pru decides to leave – the townies offend her sensibilities – but she gets lost on the way to her Bed and Breakfast. When she does finally find shelter, she slowly realizes that she’s literally become Satan’s prisoner in hell.
The long sequence in hell is where The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart finds its soul. Satan is not evil but bored, and wants Pru to share his misery. Over several millennia, her damnation turns into a deliberate battle of wills. There is room for comedy – the second act is a riff on Groundhog Day – yet Greig’s subject cuts deep. He considers how we interact with culture, and for what reasons (Pru has access to all of literature, but no one with whom to discuss it). She nearly loses her mind, at least until she develops the most unlikely case of Stockholm Syndrome. Still, their relationship is not so simple and the way they influence is each other (or not) is weirdly touching. Satan does not undo Prudencia, exactly, and the sneaky thing about the writing is how her undoing is actually a positive.
The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart is lively in a way that few plays ever achieve. All the actors play instruments, and the way the weave song into the story is seamless. Director Wils Wilson makes full use of the space so that the audience is part of the boozy ribaldry. In my review of HitRECord on the Road last week, I wrote about how endless collaboration leads to a collective voice that’s hopelessly mediocre. In that regard, this play is the opposite of HitRECord: the performers and production have a highly specific vision, one that gets more universal through its insight and energy. Free liquor notwithstanding, this is the right way subversion can be fun.
The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart is at Bier Baron until December 9th. Buy tickets here!