It’s rare that a theatrical production manages to be both smart and rollicking at the same time, but the Scottish folk tale Prudencia Hart poses philosophical questions while at the same time getting its audience to toss snow, pound tables and sing. While I generally shy away from such participation, it’s easy to get caught up in the buoyancy exhibited by this show’s five multi-talented players. The piece is clever AND fun.
Charlene Boyd, Gavin Jon Wright, Ewan Black, Charlie West, Natalie McCleary
Prudencia, a tightly wound 28 year-old Edinburgh academic in the field of Scottish ballads, attends a conference in the small Scottish border town, Kelso. She’s not looking forward to encountering her peer, Colin (Ewan Black), whose cocky personality Prudencia hates as much as his sloppy scholarship and penchant for updating. His speech goes well, hers falls flat. (Speeches are decidedly not fluff.) The heroine staunchly believes in beauty and romance, though neither has made its way into her real life.
When meetings break up, everyone gathers at a local pub. Colin insists Prudencia come along. She hesitantly agrees. At first the place is dead, then, at the tone of a bell, it turns into a karaoke/ rock club replete with pounding music, flashing lights, stripping and cocaine. It turns out to be the night of the Devil’s Ceilidh. A Ceilidh ((pronounced as kay-lee) is traditionally dancing and recitation of legendary stories dealing with ancient beliefs. This particular date, the midwinter solstice, is one on which the devil crosses over to capture souls.
Charlene Boyd (Prudencia), Gavin Jon Wright (the devil)
Colin is into it, Prudencia decidedly not. Dragged to the stage she panics. Outside a snowstorm rages. Her car and Colin’s motorcycle are buried. Colin books a room (one room) at a B&B, but disappears into the crowd. The heroine ventures out to find a place to stay, whose name she gets off the ladies room wall. She passes a woman, surrounded by children and singing eerie songs (one of several beautiful vocals by company member Natalie Mcleary). Prudencia declines the woman’s offer of a bed, a heater, and vodka. A man who says he’s from the B&B appears to escort her. Relieved, Prudencia follows. He turns out to be the (rather amiable) devil.
The heroine’s adventure in a rather unusual section of hell, results in changes to her character, an evolving relationship with Mephistopheles, and a fraught, Machiavellian escape, making up the second part of the play. Content is unexpected, staging original, the method to mark the passage of time amusing and unique. Ending is quirky, wry and finally exuberant.
Gavin Jon Wright (the devil), Charlene Boyd (Prudencia)
Here’s an opportunity for a theatrical experience unlike others. Recommended.
Author David Greig has written a fascinating and entertaining piece. A considerable part of it is in verse which adds to the sense of folktale but also, unexpectedly becomes a major factor in both Prudencia’s singular take on ballads and ultimately her escape from hell. It’s unclear that Mephistopheles is played by two actors, often alternately (I asked). Why? Everything else is of a piece except that a COSTCO seen out the window of the bed and breakfast in hell stays there literally through centuries. The play is about 30 minutes too long.
Every actor also plays an instrument.
Charlene Boyd (Prudencia) manifests her character’s vast changes with great finesse, equally believable as repressed and wanton. Despite magical context, emotions are relatable. Body language changes expressively. We’re with her.
Gavin Jon Wright makes a splendid devil. He’s watchful, sure, and takes obvious pleasure in other’s discomfort and damnation. Were smoke to rise from this performance, the audience would not be surprised. Wright listens with his entire presence. When change ensues, we feel his surprise.
As Colin, Ewan Black is just the kind of cocky blowhard most of us would avoid. This makes his awkward turnaround more appealing. The actor is befittingly loose and funny without bowing to actual slapstick.
Director Wils Wilson is wildly imaginative with use of the entire venue. Four players turn on a dime in multiple roles. (The fifth is a constant musician.) Physical combinations of actors cunningly replace furniture and props. Music is well integrated. Movement director Janice Parker creates splendid slow-mo dance and freeze frames.
Costume designer Alisa Monro presents a mishmash. The heroine looks appropriately conservative, Colin loosey goosey, the devil and his cohort kind of apt; there’s a multi-character singer in dressy clothes of today with sneakers and a musician wearing what looks like American Western wear. A bit more coherence would serve.
Music director and composer Alasdiar Macrae does a bang up job with everything from folk to ballads to rock (minimal), with extra skill apparent in evocative background music featuring harmonium.
Oddly, I can find no credit for lighting which, with the use of hand-held, stage hung and candles is terrific.
Drinks can be purchased at a bar before performance or at intermission. Tables are well spaced. Cast will weave around you.
Photos by Lena Nicholson
The National Theater of Scotland presents
The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart by David Greig
Directed and Co-Created by Wils Wilson
Featuring: Ewan Black, Charlene Boyd, Charlie West, Natali McCleary, and Gavin Jon Wright
The Club Car at The McKittrick Hotel
530 West 27th Street
Through April 30, 2023