Melody Grove in The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart

4 stars
(out of 5)
National Theatre of Scotland
@ Back Bar (Top of the Hill)
Through Sept. 20

If strange be the tales that are invoked by strong drink, the National Theatre of Scotland has ginned up a production to match in The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart.

But if any expect the gravitas of Black Watch, the Iraqi War documentary drama which got our nod for five stars when the company performed here last February, they’re in for a shock. Instead, playwright David Grieg’s 2011 tall tale about a prim young scholar’s tryst with the Devil during a small-town academic conference is a whopper worth telling over drinks in a pub.

And that is exactly where Carolina Performing Arts endeavors to place it: They’ve rented out the Back Bar at Top of The Hill for the production, which runs through Thursday night. If the second-story bunker of chrome, concrete and brick lacks some of the soul required for the gig, that was provided, quickly enough, by the quintet of performers who constituted not only the show’s cast, but its band as well.

After Annie Grace’s chilling rendition of the folk song “The Twa Corbies (The Two Ravens)” establishes the tone, the crew indulges Grieg’s mischievous, rhyming discourse—appropriate enough for a title character who studies folk ballads only to find herself supernaturally stuck in one before the night’s through. A brief sample: After describing Prudencia’s father’s penchant for odd quests which would now qualify as autistic spectrum, we learn,

“Whatever he was — whatever his spectra —
Prudencia’s complex was Elektra.”

Melody Grove’s buttoned-down reading of Prudencia finds inevitable contrast with actor Andy Clark’s average-guy take on Colin Syme, her academic nemesis. Though most actors play multiple roles, it’s unclear why Wils Wilson directs a no-nonsense David McKay to split the lines of The Man Downstairs with Clark. The choice turns Clark into a demonic subordinate—and a separate character which never appears in Grieg’s script.

While karaoke night in a Kelso pub devolves into a boozy bacchanal for the rest of these Profs Gone Wild, Prudencia makes of Hell a sort-of heaven, before a crisis provokes intervention and the possibility of rescue. Yes, things get entirely too silly when audience participation is taken to a bit of an extreme; a hapless viewer who volunteered as a minor character is gifted with a lapdance in midshow. And a rewritten and, unfortunately, reiterated “Guantanamera” proves to be the one tune this group cannot sell the whole night long.

Still, this Strange Undoing remains a wild ride that occasionally rises to the poetic in its sensibilities as well as its verse. Well worth a round of drinks, or maybe two. Sláinte mhath!