Most theater is grounded in storytelling, with a playwright and actors creating a world that artfully supplants reality for a few hours.
The National Theatre of Scotland’s The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, an immersive play running only through Sunday at Miami’s Bar 337, goes beyond the simple sharing of a tale to draw a gathering of strangers inside the story.
David Greig’s clever script, much of it in rhyming couplets, is playful, witty and haunting by turns. Though its themes and language are decidedly adult, its sense of fun is gleefully childlike. Surrendering to the play, becoming complicit in its make-believe world, is as easy as the audience’s first interactive task: tearing up white paper napkins, then tossing the pieces skyward to make it “snow” in this Miami version of a Scottish border town.
The show’s five brilliant actor-musicians pop up everywhere in the bar-turned-theater. They play music in front of the audience, then travel to the bar at the opposite end of the room to create the heroine’s snowy drive to a stuffy academic conference. Later, another side of the room becomes a perch for a haunting woman in white, while the middle turns into a lair for a character who will transform Prudencia from an emotionally cool scholar into a passionate woman.
But fear not, haters of interactive theater. While it’s true that you may find yourself briefly involved in the action — on opening night, one woman became the handlebars of a character’s motorcycle, and in a wild karaoke scene, a young guy found himself playing the middle of a rowdy actor sandwich — the resistant are left alone. Though you’d be hard-pressed to find a wary or uncomfortable face in the crowd.
The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart is itself a kind of cèilidh, a Scottish gathering involving music, dancing (well, movement anyway) and storytelling. It uses some of the themes inherent in the subject of its fictional academic conference on Scottish border ballads, particularly songs about the devil luring a fair maiden to the underworld.
Tradition is a key part of the play, yet Greig, director Wils Wilson and the five multi-talented actors also deliver a piece that is hot, contemporary and culturally expansive; you won’t, for example, ever feel the same way about Katy Perry’s I Kissed a Girl after you see what the Prudencia gang does to it.
The cast, which heads back to Scotland after the Miami run ends, is a wondrous ensemble.
Melody Grove brings an ethereal, observant quality to Prudencia, suggesting she’s a woman who stands a bit outside of life until otherworldly forces free her trapped spirit. Paul McCole brings a goofy yet likeable quality to the role of Colin Syme, Prudencia’s chief academic rival and a man as obsessed with 21st century gadgetry as Prudencia is with tradition. David McKay seems quite funny until he morphs into a character far darker. Alasdair Macrae, also the show’s composer and musical director, works a cowboy hat and an unfettered comic sensibility. And Annie Grace, so mesmerizing as that woman in white, further enriches the company’s five-part harmony.
MDC Live Arts, which is presenting Prudencia in Miami, has enhanced the Scottish pub aspect of the experience by selling fresh fish and chips (just $8) before the show, having a working bar (with a free shot of Scotch and wee sandwiches at intermission) and omnipresent music.
Site-specific, immersive productions can be a big draw for younger audiences, who don’t always dig the formal trappings of a more traditional theater experience. The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart proves the power and the pleasures of breaking with tradition.