Monday, April 17, 2023

The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart - A Wondrous Journey of the Soul

Reviewed by Judd Hollander

The aim of immersive theatre is to have the audience feel they’re actually a part of the story. So it is with the National Theatre of Scotland’s funny, poignant, and very involving The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart. A revival of which is now at The Club Car at the McKittrick Hotel.

It's a snowy December 21, 2010 , the time of the winter solstice – said snow gleefully provided on cue by the audience – and 28 year-old postgraduate student Prudencia Hart (Charlene Boyd), is on her way to a conference in the Scottish town of Kelso . Something of an introvert, Prudencia has followed in her father’s footsteps of collecting. Where her dad collected books, Prudencia is a collector of songs. In particular, Scottish Border Ballads, of which she has become something of an authority.

After the conference, Prudencia and the other speakers find themselves stranded by the heavy snowfall. With nowhere else to go, Prudencia and her adversarial colleague Dr. Colin Syme (Ewan Black) take shelter in a local pub, where it's karaoke night. Feeling out of her depth, Prudencia heads into the cold snowy night looking for the bed and breakfast Colin had just booked. Unfamiliar with the area, she soon finds herself lost in the gigantic whiteout. Until a fellow named Nick (Gavin Jon Wright) appears and offers her aid.

      Charlene Boyd in "The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart".  Photo Credit: Lena Nicholson
Aside from the harsh weather, there’s another reason one shouldn't be outside on the winter solstice. According to legend, it’s the one time of year when the barriers between our world and hell weaken, allowing the Devil to seek unsuspecting souls to take to the underworld. Which is exactly what befalls Prudencia.
While Prudencia at first refuses to believe her fate, she soon realizes Nick is indeed the Devil in human form, and intends to keep her prisoner for eternity. Prudencia’s protests, however, vanish when she beholds her gilded cage. A gigantic library that contains “every book that’s ever been.” At first Prudencia’s new life seems a dream come true. Until she realizes the truth about what being in hell really means.
The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart explores the universal pain of loneliness. This includes Prudencia, who has buried herself in her work; Colin, whose glib banter hides a heartfelt secret; and Nick who, despite all the power he commands, must always be apart from everyone. Yet as made clear, only when one breaks down the walls they’ve built can they let others in. Coupled with this is the importance of not looking down on what you don’t care about. A failing of Nick for his attitude toward mortals in general. As well as Prudencia for her disdain towards karaoke and so-called “new age” methods, such as rap, of telling stories. Or how she regards anyone who doesn't care about the things she does.

        Charlene Boyd in "The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart".  Photo Credit: Lena Nicholson
The show also notes that though work can be one’s passion, it shouldn’t be the total sum of an existence. Something Prudencia learns after untold years of research in Nick’s library as she attempts to prove her composition theories. Her joy at finally doing so tempered by the realization no one will ever see the results.
A great asset of the production is its use of language. The characters continually switching from prose to poetry, often with rhyming couplets. While quite funny throughout, it also leads to some very touching moments between Prudencia and Nick as she tries to bridge the gap between them. Their encounters causing both to change in a way neither expected. For Prudencia’s “undoing” is not so much a fall or humiliation, but rather a realization of what it is to be mortal, with a limited time on this earth. An awareness also visible in the change of Prudencia’s outward appearance over the course of the show.
The production's intricate staging is wonderfully executed. The actors at times right next to, or on top of the tables where the audience is seated. They also sometimes use said audience members as props for the story. Including a motorcycle. By the second act, everyone is so totally invested in what's unfolding, they sing and clap with unbridled enthusiasm whenever prompted. The space itself also gives off a charming old world feel. 

                 Gavin Jon Wright and Charlene Boyd in "The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart". 
                                                     Photo Credit: Lena Nicholson
The cast, many who play multiple roles, feels like a well-oiled machine. Boyd is perfect as Prudencia and takes her character through a complete metamorphosis as she becomes more understanding of the world and those in it. Black projects a strong, if somewhat stereotypical macho air as Colin. Who proves to be far more dependable than first given credit. Wright is exceptionally good as Nick. An initially amicable sort with a quiet, smoldering aura, but a deadly foe when crossed. Charlie West works well as one of Nick’s other forms while Natali McCleary cuts a haunting figure as a mysterious woman Prudencia encounters in the snow. 
The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart tells a stirring tale of love, loss, loneliness and tells it oh so very well.
Featuring: Ewan Black, Charlene Boyd, Natali McCleary, Charlie West, Gavin Jon Wright
The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart
Co-created by David Greig writer & Wils Wilson (director)
Designer: Georgia McGuinness
Music Director and Composer: Alasdair Macrae
Movement Director: Janice Parker
Associate Movement Director: Jack Webb
Associate Director (Scotland): Andrea Cabrera Luna

Associate Director (U.S.): Hunter Bird

Producer for Double M Arts & Events: Neil Murray and Michael Mushalla

Casting Director: Laura Donnelly CDG

Production Manager: Craig Fleming

Costume Supervisor: Alisa Munro

Company Stage Manager: Millie Hannah Jones

Assistant Stage Manager: Scott Ringan
The Club Car at The McKittrick Hotel
542 West 27th Street
Running Time: Two hours, 30 minutes, one intermission
Closes: April 30. 2023 

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