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A CurtainUp Review
The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart
By Charles Wright

What happens if we let go of prose? — Prudencia Hart

We can't — — The Devil

— Why not? If we adopt a more poetic form, who knows
What might happen.
The tighter the form the less control
We have over meaning or, you might say, soul.
— Prudencia
 The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart
Melody Grove as the title character (Photo credit: Jenny Anderson)
Since the day Lucifer abandoned Heaven for a less lofty retreat, writers have been concocting tales about Faustian bargains that promise to be the undoing of imprudent mortals. From Orpheus and Eurydice through ancient Hebrew literature to Marlowe, Milton, Goethe, Washington Irving, Benet, Updike, and the Charlie Daniels Band ballad about the Devil at a fiddle competition in Georgia, overweening protagonists are depicted, in prose and verse, matching wits with the old tempter. Satan, possessing supernatural powers, ought to be the odds-on favorite in these conflicts; but, for stories to be compelling, there has to be uncertainty and, preferably, a surprise or two in the outcome.

There are surprises aplenty in The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, a new take on the classic struggle of a human and the Devil, which is raising the roof at the Heath, a performing space and pub in Chelsea. Billed as "created by" playwright David Greig and director Wils Wilson, Prudencia Hart is an immersive entertainment featuring five talented performers equally adept at clowning and music (both vocal and instrumental). It's a production of The National Theatre of Scotland, the company that brought Black Watch to St. Ann's Warehouse and Macbeth with Alan Cummings to the Lincoln Center Festival.

Prudencia (Melody Grove) is a comely literary scholar from Edinburgh on a day-trip to the Scottish Borders for an academic conference. Her field of research is Sir Walter Scott, and the dissertation she's writing concerns the "topography of hell" in literature.

The conference coincides with the gargantuan blizzard of December 2010. Since Prudencia Hart is an immersive entertainment, the spectators, seated around tables, tear up paper napkins and toss the white shreds in the air to simulate snow. The Heath's well-stocked bar and the complimentary whiskey shots served before the play begins provide Dutch courage for audience members uneasy about the show's audience-participation aspects.

At the conference, Prudencia encounters her professional nemesis, Dr. Colin Syme (Paul McCole ), "who — can you believe this — gets actual grants / for the recording and analysis of football chants." Yes, a substantial portion of The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart is written in verse (some of it good, some doggerel, but all amusing).

At the opening panel of the conference, "On the Linguistics and Transmission of Oral Narratives and Balladry (Border Ballads, Neither Border Nor Ballad?)," Prudencia squares off against Syme and other university types who are spouting pseudo-scientific gobbledygook about Scottish literature. In her view, scholarly reflection should avoid literary theory and focus on a close reading of texts and, especially, on the majesty of verse and the beauty of language.

Fed up with the conference, Prudencia wants to leave for home but, with Scotland getting its heaviest snowfall in decades, she's stuck. What's worse, she can't evade Syme, who has seduction in mind.

The plot, silly but diverting, follows Prudencia from pub to disco to Costco parking lot and onward to the underworld, where the Devil (Peter Hannah) maintains an extraordinary library. But the library contains only prose. Hell, as it turns out, is a place without poetry or wi-fi.

The playwright and producers have inserted an intermission between the scenes on earth and those in the netherworld. After that break in the action, The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart loses steam. In part, the problem can be attributed to the script's transition from zippy verse to prose that's decidedly prosaic. But it's also that the preoccupations of small-beer academicians don't justify two hours of ridicule. Greig and Wilson could have made their satiric points effectively in an hour or 90 minutes and without an intermission. But this is a commercial venture and the management needs business at their bar. With a couple of intermission drinks under their belts, patrons may overlook the fact that the second part is less engaging than the first.

The Heath is in the McKittrick Hotel — a performance venue rather than a hotel — which is also home to another interactive entertainment, Sleep No More, which has been running since 2011. The Heath is a cozy room with a warm, clubby atmosphere, grand-looking bar, and a great many tables set very closely together. It seems an unlikely place for a rambunctious play with music, spirited dancing, and the occasional eruption of violent conflict, but it turns out to be ideal.

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The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart
Created by David Greig and Wils Wilson
Written by David Greig
Director: Wils Wilson
Cast: Annie Grace; Melody Grove; Peter Hannah; Paul McCole; Alasdair Macrae
Design: Georgia McGuinness
Movement Director: Janice Parker
Musical Director: Alasdair Macrae
Running Time: 2 hours and 15 minutes, with one intermission
Presented by The National Theatre of Scotland; produced by Emursive in accociation with Rebecca Gold Productions
The McKittrick Hotel, 542 West 27th Street

>From 11/16/16; opened 12/13/16; closing 3/26/17
Reviewed by Charles Wright at December 12th press performance

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