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, their Iraqi War documentary drama that got our nod for five stars when they performed here in February 2011, they're likely in for a shock. Playwright David Greig's 2011 tall tale about a prim young scholar's encounter with the Devil during a small-town academic conference is a whopper worthy of telling over drinks in a Scottish 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 Greig'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 that would now qualify as autistic spectrum, we learn, "Whatever he was—whatever his spectra—Prudencia's complex was Electra.")
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 actors assume 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—a separate character that never appears in Greig'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 an audience member is gifted with a lap dance in midshow, and a rewritten (and, lucklessly, reiterated) "Guantanamera" is the one tune this group cannot sell the whole night long.
Still, this Strange Undoing remains a wild and sometimes poetic ride. Well worth a round of drinks, or maybe two.
This article appeared in print with the headline "Tall tales and karaoke nights."