Theater Review: “The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart” at Shakespeare Theatre

The National Theatre of Scotland returns to Washington for this unconventional but charming production.
Andy Clark, Melody Grove, Annie Grace, David McKay, and Alasdair Macrae in the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, presented at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. Photograph by Drew Farrell.
Andy Clark, Melody Grove, Annie Grace, David McKay, and Alasdair Macrae in the National Theatre of Scotland’s production of The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, presented at the Shakespeare Theatre Company. Photograph by Drew Farrell.

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
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

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).

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