At a pub in The McKittrick Hotel in New York City, the same venue that houses immersive theater-dance experience Sleep No More, a Scottish troupe is coaxing New Yorkers in classic Celtic fashion: with folk music, storytelling, and a stiff drink. Straight from a hit run at the National Theatre of Scotland, The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart is a music-filled folk fable that begins with whiskey shots and unfolds as five talented actor-musicians romp through the audience, spinning a supernatural tale.
The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart lacks many of the things you might expect from a night at the theater. There are no sets, costumes, props, or special effects to speak of. The audience is part of the action: the lights never dim and the actors might climb on your table, nearly kick over your beer, and use your arms as makeshift motorcycle handlebars—like a child playing make-believe.
As director Wils Wilson puts it, an audience’s willingness to meet the cast halfway, indulging in a collaborative night of storytelling, is part of the show's magical alchemy. “A good story isn’t simple, in a way, it has a richness to it. And because we don’t have a lot of the things that theater normally has, it makes the event of the storytelling into something that is only possible when the audience imagines it with you,” she tells The Creators Project. Maybe it’s the booze, but this expectation—that a roomful of adults will suspend their disbelief long enough to help tell a story—helps peel away the everyday, giving the experience a dreamlike vibrancy.
The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart is the eponymous tale of an uptight academic who specializes in the study of Border ballads, or long narrative rhyming poems that originated along the Scottish-English divide. Snowbound while attending a conference in the tiny town of Kelso, Prudencia finds herself in the clutches of the Devil, a fate befalling many-a-maiden in the Border ballads she’s devoted her life to studying.
“Prudencia Hart happens in the borders: the borders between England and Scotland, yes, but it also sort of happens in the border between the supernatural and the real,” Wilson says. “In the theater, you can live in that borderland. You don’t have to be pinned down to one reality. We’re in a bar in New York, but we’re also in a bar in a small town in Scotland, and yes, we’re also in Hell.”
Its ability to toe the line between the real and fictional, the ancient and contemporary, makes the show particularly mesmerizing. “We’d love it if people wake up the next day and went, ‘Did that really happen in that room? Did we really see that?’” Wilson says. “We’ve all had a wild night of doing things that, really, we shouldn’t. And we’ve all also experienced really sublime emotions. Everybody has those extremes within them, and you’ve just got to recognize them.”
The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart thrives amidst contrast. The actors sing folk ballads one moment and Kylie Minogue the next, and somehow, it all makes sense. And though it feels fresh, Wilson says the push-pull between academia and pop culture is customary. “In Shakespeare, you always have the clown and the king. There’s a sort of tradition of low and highbrow humor living together, and we definitely sit right in the middle of that,” she says. “Also, humor is such a massive part of Scottish culture.”
Perhaps the strongest thing going for the show, though, is that it rejects gimmick. In a society increasingly eager for digitally-augmented entertainment, a night of low-tech storytelling is the balm audiences didn’t know they needed. “It’s almost like going back to the idea of a campfire. People need and want stories. We’re all desperate, hardwired for story,” Wilson asserts. “The world is quite fractured at the moment. I think people are hungry to come together in a room and share an experience like this. It feels timely; it feels like a good time to be doing it.”