'The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart' review — an enchanting, immersive experience
Read our four-star review of The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, a drama currently playing off Broadway at The McKittrick Hotel through April 30 only.
Upon arrival at the McKittrick Hotel’s Club Car space, audience members receive shots of whiskey and are instructed to tear napkins at their cocktail tables. The National Theatre of Scotland’s rollicking, immersive tale of The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, which first bowed at the McKittrick in 2017, begins with a snowstorm of paper napkins.
It’s the morning of the winter solstice, and buttoned-up academic Prudencia Hart (Charlene Boyd) is preparing to attend a conference on Scottish folk studies. Prudencia is an expert on the oral transmission of Scottish ballads and studies the topic of hell in traditional folk music. Even the lofty linguistic experts attending the conference find that strange, particularly her archenemy, Dr. Colin Smye (Ewan Black). He’s an expert on football chants.
The snowbound attendees retreat to a pub for a raucous evening of karaoke and debauchery — Prudencia’s personal hell. She’d rather hide out at a nearby bed and breakfast. The rowdy karaoke singers warn Prudencia not to wander outside alone, because on the evening of a solstitial full moon, the devil lurks in the dark to collect souls. What happens next might be a hypothermic or liquor-induced nightmare.
Director Wils Wilson, who co-created the show with David Greig, leads with imagination. The cast employs physical theatre tricks. In one scene, Prudencia sits on the bar, and castmates form a makeshift car around her, a violin bow serving as a windshield wiper as she drives. In another, an audience member’s arms become the handles of Colin’s motorcycle, while a cast member ruffles his scarf behind him in the wind. Janice Parker’s movement direction is all-encompassing, and the troupe dances on tabletops and snakes between the crowd throughout the show, sometimes pulling the audience into the action.
This inventiveness extends to the music. The cast of five play Scottish folk music and produce various sound effects with spoons, kazoos, glass bottles, and even a crinkly bag of potato chips held in front of a microphone to imitate the sound of a 1700s phonograph. The show’s musical playfulness (led by music director Alasdair Macrae) balances its spooky, supernatural themes.
The Club Car, transformed into a lively Scottish pub, is a character in and of itself. The most impressive element of the immersive design, by Georgia McGuinness, is the lighting. Rows of orb lights glow like full moons. The pendant lights change color; pink when Prudencia is seemingly in control, red when the devil is, and multicolor when no one is. (The lights flash rainbow colors during the karaoke bit.) In one scene, the space goes pitch black, and cast members spotlight each other with torch lights to eerie effect. In another, candles on the cocktail tables are the sole source of light.
Prudencia’s undoing is both literal and figurative. Throughout the show, her crown braids unfurl, her pussy-bow blouse unravels, and her prudent disposition unknots. Boyd graciously leads the character through this transition with a robust voice and steadfastness.
The multi-talented ensemble takes on roles of academics, revelers, and hellish tempters. All are superb. Gavin Jon Wright makes for a steely devil, Ewan Black brings the laughs, and Natali McCleary steals the spotlight as a ghostly figure singing the folk tune “Blackwaterside.” Throughout the show, musician Charlie West impressively plays a host of instruments, including the fiddle.
Like good bartenders, or gracious bed and breakfast hosts, the cast and crew of The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart offer the audience ham and gruyère sandwiches at intermission. The sandwiches, plus the whiskey and specialty cocktails for sale, help settle the crowd into the storytelling. The two-and-a-half hour show is more than a performance; it’s an expressive experience that spans millennia and dimensions.
Photo credit: The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart. (Photo courtesy of production)
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