The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart - Apollinaire Theatre Company
The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart – Apollinaire Theatre Company
Review by James Wilkinson
The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart is presented by Apollinaire Theatre Company. Written by David Greig. Directed by Danielle Fauteux Jacques. Set/Lighting Design by Danielle Fauteux Jacques. Costume Design by Elizabeth Rocha. Music Direction & Sound Design by David Reiffel.
A wave of energy strikes you as you approach Apollinaire Theatre. It’s a wild, raucous energy, the kind you’ll find in a small town Scottish pub at around one in the morning, when the music is blaring, the drink is plenty and the laughter is infectious. For their production of David Greig’s The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, Apollinaire has moved their lobby bar inside, broken the playing space into table seating and let their actors loose with microphones and live accompaniment to create that pub atmosphere. It’s all for a purpose, (I mean, besides the purpose of having a good time). The production is looking to create the sense of a community, the sense that we’re all a part of the fun. Greig’s script is a madcap mix of influences and styles, from folk tales, ballads, verse plays, morality parables and more. You’d expect the play to collapse under the weight of what it’s trying to do, but Apollinaire’s production doesn’t let it. We’re invited into the energy, into the crazy story that it’s trying to tell.
That story has a lot to do with Scottish identity (Greig’s homeland) and you might have to focus a bit harder than usual to get through the thick Scottish accents (though really, you should be paying attention anyway). Prudenica Hart (Becca A. Lewis) is an academic who specializes in Scottish border ballads and has set off to attend a conference in Kelso, one of the Scottish border towns. She has a fierce love for her subject, one that isn’t particularly shared by her colleagues, who take a much more cerebral approach to their studies. In one lovely bit of nose thumbing at academia, a researcher describes herself as a “post-post-structuralist.” Prudencia’s presentation doesn’t quite go as planned and when a surprise snowstorm keeps her in town for the night, she reluctantly follows her peers to the local pub. What she hopes will be a quiet night with the town folk quickly descends into something much more debaucherous once the academic crowd fuels themselves with alcohol. Eventually the Devil shows up (as he is wont to do) and Prudencia is tricked into following him down to hell, (hell being an infinite library with every book ever written or will be written). Will Prudencia ever find a way out?
The description above really doesn’t do justice to just how many twists and turns there are in Greig’s script. The story is presented as kind of epic narrative, like Beowulf, complete with dialogue written in iambic pentameter. Prudencia’s tale is a quest in the sense of those ballads that she loves so dearly, but one that isn’t too wrapped its own highbrow intentions. Greig isn’t above tossing in the occasional crass joke that will produce belly laughs from the audience. An ensemble of seven performers play all of the characters around Prudencia and the Devil, flinging costumes on and off (the fantastic costumes are by Elizabeth Rocha), as they bring life to the Scottish town our story takes place in. Thankfully, the script never falls into the trap of looking at Scotland through a lens of “quaintness” (something that happens all too often with stories set in Ireland). Greig isn’t putting down or satirizing his influences, he’s trying to bring them to a contemporary audience in a way that they’ll respond to (he succeeds). He’s looking to revel in the bawdy storytelling as it relates to Scottish identity.
With director Danielle Fauteux Jacques at the helm, the Apollinaire company lets it rip. We’re here to have a good time and God damn it we’re going to do it. Jacques’ staging has the action of the play constantly swirling around us, sucking us into its vortex. When the lights came up at intermission, the woman in front of me was cackling with glee. “It’s so weird,” she told her companion. That’s the kind of response that Apollinaire’s production generates. It is weird, but it’s a weirdness that you find joy in and want to be a part of. And we do get to be a part of it (partially thanks to some moments of audience participation). It’s what makes the production feel so electrically alive.
As the eye in this particular storm, Becca A. Lewis gives a wonderful central performance as Prudencia Hart. Lewis has a fantastic stage presence that holds your attention when you’re looking at her. You get the sense that she’s a tightly wound coil, just teetering on the edge of springing out. I think it’s this tension that keeps your eyes on her. You’re waiting to see what she'll do. That energy is a good match for Keith Foster’s performance as the devil. When he arrives on scene, it’s almost as if we’ve dropped into a different play, the iambic pentameter is dropped (apparently nobody rhymes in hell). The devil, as it turns out, is not a man of many words, but Foster manages to bring some impressive shading to the character. Something in his eyes and his stance always seems to suggest a greater emotional life that what he’s admitting to.
Around these two actors you have the comedic ensemble of Brooks Reeves, Ann Carpenter, Christie Lee Gibson, Kody Grassett, Francis Xavier Norton, Erica Risti and Slava Tchoul. I mention them all by name because their performances all lean on each other. Each is an individual piece of the larger puzzle. There’s a kind of witchcraft going on with the group. The actors know that if they pitch the story at just the right pace and tone, the whole thing will sing and they’re chomping at the bit to get there. It’s in their interplay that the magic is generated.
There’s a moment in the play, after Prudencia has spent a few thousand years in the library of hell when she wonders what her life’s work is for. What’s the point if it all gets lost in the wheels of time? Cynics might take this as the lesson The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart is imparting to its audience. But I would put to you that Greig’s play answers the question in a much more affirmative way. Yes, perhaps ultimately all that we do is insignificant in the grand scheme of things. But in the meantime, in the pub with the music blaring, in the theater with a play on, in the here and now of the moment, we’re allowed to come together. And yes, even something as mundane as a Kylie Minogue song sung on a karaoke machine can help cross the divide between us.
The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart is presented at Chelsea Theatre Works April 5-May 4, 2019.
For tickets and more information, visit their website: www.apollinairetheatre.com