Review: The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart

National Theatre of Scotland serves up one helluva grand show

Prudencia (Melody Grove) may have just found her way out of Hell
Prudencia (Melody Grove) may have just found her way out of Hell (Courtesy of Johan Persson)

The warm glow spreading throughout your frame may be from the free shot of Scotch you downed – compliments the National Theatre of Scotland – but truth to tell, you'd feel it without the hooch after The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart. This lively tall tale, told with music, wit, and wily storytelling, kindles a bonnie cheerful fire inside.

Tonight is your last chance to catch this damned engaging show – damned being the operative word, since its titular heroine, a somewhat forlorn and hapless academic, finds herself held captive by the lord of the underworld on a midwinter's night, when the veil between our realm and his opens enough for Old Scratch to snatch living souls and drag them to hell. How that comes to be, and what becomes of pitiful Prudencia after taking up residence in the Devil's B&B (I kid you not!), is related in the manner of a grand yarn spun over a few pints in the pub. And the creative team behind this National Theatre of Scotland production – writer David Grieg, director Wils Wilson, and composer Alasdair Macrae – has cultivated that feeling by staging the work as if in a pub, with the audience seated at tables and a full bar to one side (at which one may redeem the coupon for that freebie shot). The company prefers to perform in actual bars, and Texas Performing Arts had secured it one for a run least year, but circumstances beyond everyone's control forced the run to be canceled after one performance. This year, TPA brought the show in-house and turned the Bass Concert Hall stage into a pub-bish setting, as it did for the National Theatre of Scotland's production of Long Gone Lonesome a couple of years back. You're not going to confuse it with any tavern in the real world, but it's a creditable enough transformation of the space to encourage that relaxed bonhomie you find in places where the primary purpose is to drink and chat.

The five-member cast initially fills the role of house band, performing traditional Scottish music as the crowd files in and grabs a beverage or two. Then when all are seated, the five begin the tale jointly, considering as a group where best in Prudencia's story to begin – trapped with the Devil? lost in the snowy streets of Kelso? at the knee of her eccentric pa, where she developed her love of auld Scottish ballads? – before finally settling on an academic conference in Kelso, a market town in the Scottish Borders, where we learn about Prudencia's colleagues in the field of Scottish balladry and how she isn't all that respected by them. Melody Grove might as well have a heart pinned to her sleeve; her face and body project a lifetime of isolation and yearning, a lonely absorption in the beauty of this folk music and an inability make it connect with anyone else. To watch her suffer the foolish teasing of her peers is a heartbreaking experience – or would be if Grove weren't so skilled at revealing Prudencia's foibles comically and the rest of the cast so appealing in their buffoonery. The tale alternates between being boisterous and haunting, with Prudencia abandoning her tormentors to seek her lodging for the night on foot and encountering a mysterious woman in the darkness (a spooky Annie Grace, waving a bottle of vodka in the spare illumination of a flashlight) before meeting up with her host, who ultimately reveals that Prudencia will be staying with him considerably later than breakfast the next day. David McKay splendidly segues from the most milquetoasty of landlords into a Devil to drop your blood to the freezing point, but he leavens the hellishness with just enough humanity to make us feel for the old hoofed demon. As in all great prison dramas, the climax revolves around Prudencia's escape, accomplished with the unlikely help of verse (who knew Lucifer had, quite literally, a weakness for poetry?) and the academic who gave her the most grief but actually carried a bit of a torch for her (a marvelously mock-heroic Paul McCole, all goofy swagger and cocksureness, if you catch my drift). Composer Macrae completes the crew with his own choice comic support and fiddle-playing that is so accomplished and catchy, you begin to suspect its origin is supernatural.

A great drink will satisfy for many reasons, and so it is with The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart: the go-for-broke enthusiasm of the cast, the infectious music-making, the astoundingly clever and delightful script penned almost completely in rhyming couplets, the playful theatricality that makes audience members into motorbikes and creates blizzards out of shredded bar napkins. And like that great drink, it may just leave you intoxicated. And say, barkeep, can we have another round?

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The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, National Theatre of Scotland, Texas Performing Arts

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