Between the sharp smell of whiskey and sour beer stinging your nostrils, the din of bellowing drunkards and live music, and the inevitable human bonds forged over a few too many pints, a crowded pub has the potential to jolt not only the senses, but the soul. And when most theatrical productions earn accolades for making members of the audience feel like they’re right in the middle of the action, the Shakespeare Theatre Company’s latest literally puts them there—smack dab in all the karaoke-singing, beer-soaked, camaraderie-laden fun. The company has joined forces with the National Theatre of Scotland for the second time for The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, now playing in an old-fashioned neighborhood bar, the Bier Baron Tavern in Dupont Circle. But the novel setting and raucous disregard for the fourth wall are hardly the only things that make this memorable show so wildly entertaining.
Writer David Greig and director Wils Wilson found inspiration for the show, a 2011 Edinburgh Festival Fringe hit, in the tradition of folk songs and stories known collectively as the Border Ballads, from the region between Scotland and England. Prudencia cleverly weaves together handed-down mythical narratives, rustic, beautiful harmonies and verse, and the jovial liveliness of an evening spent with old friends at the corner watering hole (beers in hand and all). What begins as a banal modern-day academic conference extended by a snowstorm for uptight folklore scholar Prudencia Hart (a bright-eyed Melody Grove) evolves into a sometimes supernatural journey that ultimately leads to hell, romance, and finding herself.
The five-person cast radiates authenticity even before the show officially begins, setting the laid-back mood as the audience files in with fiddles, pipes, and lyrics thick with their native brogue. The demanding performance that follows is a seamless team effort. Along with Grove, Scottish actors Andy Clark, Annie Grace, David McKay, and castmate and musical director Alasdair Macrae achieve a rare group dynamic that feels at once polished and organic. And while the play’s unique format could easily overshadow the cast’s actual performance, the acting is poignant, as well.
Any production that incorporates audience participation runs the risk of the children’s-birthday-party forced feeling. In this case, however, something about the theatergoers’ total immersion, the fact that the action is actually happening all around them, and that everybody’s in on the joke alleviates that tired expectation. Patrons beware: Attending this show may result in you getting kissed, asked to join in a song, or worse. But it’s all in good fun. Really. (The complimentary shots of single-malt whiskey before the show and ham and cheese sandwiches at intermission don’t hurt, either.)
For the most part, the play is easy to follow, though from time to time even the handy Glossary of Scottish Terms distributed at each bar table seems to fall short of helping us Americans fully grasp a cultural reference or slang term (admittedly those language barriers likely add to the authentic charm). The second act is also a bit jarring, as it starts off feeling like a drastically different play, even veering close to getting off the well-crafted track the first act established—a lone distraction in an otherwise captivating production.
The idea of experimenting with unexpected venues and unorthodox dramatic structures seems to be gaining more mainstream popularity in the theater community, bringing with it countless possibilities and perils. (The Shakespeare Theatre Company will host a symposium on Site-Specific and Immersive Theatre on December 4.) But if this show is any indication, the future looks bright. Balancing modern humor and sentiments—complete with poetic references to Twitter and Kylie Minogue—with the gravity of shared tradition and spirited bar-stool antics with the deeper meaning behind the tales is no easy task. But Prudencia pulls it off, and that’s worth raising a glass to.
The Shakespeare Theatre Company’s presentation of the National Theatre of Scotland’s The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart is playing through December 9 at Bier Baron Tavern. Running time is about two and a half hours, including one intermission. Tickets ($50) are available via Shakespeare Theatre’s website. As the show takes place in an actual pub, all patrons are required to present legal ID. All patrons under 21 years old must be accompanied by a legal guardian (the show contains adults themes and language).