A marvelous ‘Undoing’ indeed
By Hedy Weiss Theater Criticfirstname.lastname@example.org September 28, 2012 12:36AM
Annie Grace leads the way as Prudencia (Melody Grove) is carried atop the shoulders of Andy Clark in National Theatre of Scotland’s “The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart” at Chicago Shakespeare Theater Upstairs. | Drew Farrell photo
When: Through Oct. 28
Shakespeare Theater Upstairs, 800 E. Grand, on Navy Pier
Info: (312) 595-5600;
Updated: October 29, 2012 6:05AM
The English and Irish have been exporting their cultural treasures for decades, but only in recent years have the artists of Scotland joined the grand armada across the Atlantic. And based on the evidence so far — primarily by way of the National Theatre of Scotland (and its remarkable production of “Black Watch,” which returns here Oct. 10) — they can more than hold their own.
Now, the same company (again in conjunction with Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s World’s Stage Series), is treating us to Scottish playwright David Greig’s “The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart,” and it is pure, unadulterated magic. At turns brainy, sexy, hilarious, playfully spooky, richly musical and hugely imaginative, were this show to be bottled as fine distilled whiskey it would be labeled 95 proof and altogether intoxicating.
Enter Chicago Shakespeare’s intimate Upstairs space where “Prudencia Hart” is being performed, and you will think you’ve stumbled into the back room of a pub. The usual seating has been removed, and the audience gathers at refectory tables. A working bar is on one side of the room. At the other is a table for the five hugely gifted actor-musicians who will spin Greig’s contemporary Scottish-gothic tale, periodically accompanying themselves on fiddle, banjo, bagpipes, mandolin, bodrum, spoons and more.
So just who is Prudencia Hart and what is all this about her “strange undoing”? To begin with, she is played by Melody Grove, an actress of such easy charisma and seductive naturalness that you are with her from first step to last. She is terrific.
Prudencia is an Edinburgh girl — a young scholar of folk music, working on a doctoral thesis teasingly entitled, “The Topography of Hell in Scottish Ballads.” A complicated mix of old-fashioned romantic and competitive academic, she has a feisty independent spirit tempered by the not entirely unhappy status of loner. She also has something of an Electra complex — very much the pet daughter of an eccentric, book collector father.
The trouble begins when Prudencia arrives at a farflung academic conference in the midst of a serious snowstorm. The usual array of obnoxious scholarly competitors are there, each twisting Sottish folk music further from its natural roots. (Greig’s sendup of academia is priceless, and this play should be required viewing at annual conferences of musicologists, anthropologists, modern language scholars and others.)
Trapped by the snowstorm, the group heads to the local pub where everyone but Prudencia drinks too much, and karaoke has long since replaced traditional folk music. Colin (Andy Clark), the Mr. Cool of the group, puts the moves on Prudencia, and they end up heading to a bed and breakfast. But somewhere into the night, Prudencia strikes off on her own and is enticed into a (very Freudian) living nightmare of sorts that finds her seduced by Satan (David McKay), held hostage for centuries in his massive library, rescued by Colin and well, let’s just say this is a ballad writ large and fantastically. Clark and Kay are perfection, with the mythically-bearded AlasdairMacRae (also the show’s fine music director), and multi-character-playing Annie Grace paving the way through hell at every turn.
Wils Wilson’s ingenious direction (with movement by Janice Parker) is very much in the Lookingglass Theatre tradition, where physicality often says as muchas language. And even if there are a few too many “verses” in this ballad, you will hang on to Prudencia’s undoing (and salvation) to the last note.