ARTS & IDEAS: Writer David Greig and director Wils Wilson have created a touring production that brings a bit of Scotland to this year’s Arts & Ideas. The National Theatre of Scotland’s The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart mixes scholarship about border ballads with folklore about unwary travelers snagged by the devil, incorporates romantic comedy situations and also tweaks the twee staples of Scots culture as well as the tweeting tendencies of our global moment. And what’s more, most of the show is in rhyme, and heavily inflected by Scots’ accents—ta buute!
Staged at the Wicked Wolf Tavern (all productions of the play on tour will take place in taverns or in tavern-like settings), Prudencia Hart is a good night out, managing to be funny, brainy, bawdy, spooky, sexy, silly, and a wee bit longer than it needs to be. It tells the tale of a scholar, Prudencia (Madeleine Worrall), who goes to a conference in the sticks, only to be ruffled by a rival colleague, the hip-as-can-be Colin (David McKay), and then subsequently—to avoid close quarters with him at a B&B—gets lost in the snow, only to encounter mysterious characters such as the Woman in White (Annie Grace) and an affable fellow (Andy Clark) who may have dark designs.
The cast is joined by Alasdair Macrae, the award-winning composer and musical director of the play, who aids in sundry ways by bringing in music, playing an emcee, and helping to keep things rolling with his manic presence. If fatigue sets in, it’s probably going to be during the lengthy masked bit, which has the feel of one of those interminable drinking games that are better experienced far from sober—the topic here is the debauchery of some locals in the town of Kelso, and is perhaps the sort of thing that might play better not so far from home. As it is, for comic purposes, I was much more entertained by the mock-ups of the kind of local jokes posing as talents one would be likely to find in a Scots pub on a cold winter’s night, flailing the hide off over-familiar folk tunes.
Another longueur surfaces in Act 2—and part of the trouble is right there: it’s a two-act play that has to pad itself a bit to sport a proper length—when our heroine Prudencia is imprisoned in a hellish B&B (though the extensive library makes it heavenly to our ever curious lassie) and the exchanges between Prudencia and her host resort to prose.
There’s no way this part isn’t going to seem flat after all the sprightly rhymes and bouncy rhythms of Act 1. The slowing of the pace serves a purpose, but it has the feel of a glass of bubbly after the bubbles have gone.
The game cast makes the most of the space, moving about among the audience, jumping up on the tables, and coming at us from all sides. One improv moment I particularly enjoyed occurred when Colin greeted a fellow seated at my table (Broken Umbrella Theatre’s Ian Alderman) as “Hamish”; Hamish-Ian greeted him back and was told “ah, you’ve lost your accent.” Without missing a beat, Alderman replied, “I’ve had amnesia.” Again, most of this sort of hijinks occurs in the first half when we’re all still delighted with each other’s company. In the second half, there’s an attempt to bring the energy back up to the raucous by having McKay, in his underwear, cavort karaoke-style for the worshipful locals, but I found him more entertaining bickering over the deconstructive tendencies of modern scholarship rather than loutishly strutting.
Andy Clark’s sinister host was well done and Annie Grace’s spooky lady—lit only by the light (“once a Girl Guide always a Girl Guide”) on Prudencia’s head—memorable with her keening vocals. As Prudencia, Madeleine Worrall embodies perfectly the stodgy intellectual who ends up finding a bit of peril, a bit of fun, and a whole lot of new material for her research; she boasts a wonderfully settled composure no matter how wacky or other-worldly the goings-on might be.
As a staging space, the Wicked Wolf leaves a bit to be desired. The lighting is, for the most part, restaurant houselights, not great at setting a mood. The part in total blackness, but for Prudencia’s beacon, was a welcome change, as were the candlelit bits. There’s also the large brick pillar in the center of the playing space to be considered, and where you sit in relation to it will affect your access. The National Theatre of Scotland has no home base and so presents its moveable feasts all over the country and all over the world in site-specific locations. The benefit of avoiding the tired old distance between audience and actors is the feeling of lively impromptu in a shared space.
More than anything, Prudencia Hart is to be relished for its language, for the lilt of the accents, for its music and voices and many clever asides. It also managed at times—miraculously—to transport us to cold and snowy Kelso on a very hot June night in a not overly air conditioned New Haven establishment.
And that strange doing was most welcome.
IF YOU GO: What: National Theatre of Scotland's The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart When: June 22-23 & 26-30 at 7 p.m.; June 23, 24, 27 at 1 p.m. Where: Wicked Wolf Tavern, 144 Temple St. Tickets: $34-$45 ($15 food and beverage minimum) Info: artidea.org
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