If you take in a performance of “The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart” — and you’d be well advised to do so — be prepared to find an actor from the National Theatre of Scotland standing barefoot on your table with his pants down or to have those pants land on your head or to have another cast member give you a lap dance.
If such experiences aren’t to your liking, stay home and watch TV. But if you’re ready to roll with inventive theater while sipping a single malt Scotch, head to the Upstairs space at Chicago Shakespeare Theater and be in the thick of the action as a talented troupe takes you on a journey that begins with farce, descends into hell and soars on the power of love. I’m still picking bits of paper napkin out of my clothing, but that’s the price you pay for a little stage magic.
“Prudencia Hart” is the latest in Chicago Shakes’ World’s Stage Series, launched in 2000. Last season the series brought a troupe from Australia to the streets of Chicago for “En Route.” As part of this season’s series, the National Theatre of Scotland returns with “Black Watch” at the Broadway Armory October 10–21.
It is fitting that the “Prudencia Hart” production team has transformed the Upstairs black box space — take the stairs or elevator to the sixth floor — into a Scottish pub (design by Georgia McGuinness), because it was a weekend visit to a Kelso pub in the Scottish Borders that inspired the play’s creation by playwright David Greig, director Wils Wilson and composer Alasdair Macrae. Theatergoers sit at communal tables sipping drinks from the cash bar or sampling a free measure of 10-year-old Benromach Scotch — don’t miss the voucher in the program — or nibbling on a sandwich passed at the interval, a pub tradition.
With the actors flitting among — and atop — the packed tables, the space remains brightly lit much of the time, making the occasional plunges into darkness all the more effective. Sound plays an even bigger role than light, with the actors singing, playing instruments that include the border pipes (a helpful “Glossary of Scottish Terms” explains how those differ from bagpipes) and generating a variety of sound effects as good as those by any Foley artist. The singing and playing are first-rate too.
All that makes for great fun, but the skilled actors and the ingenious story are what captivate. Melody Grove plays the buttoned-up Prudencia, whose folklore PhD thesis was on the topography of hell. When Prudencia and an academic colleague, the unbuttoned, motorcycle-riding Colin, played by Andy Clark, find themselves snowbound at a conference in the Scottish boonies, Colin locates one remaining room at the local inn. Says Prudencia: “He’s always got the most up-to-date crap: a-bed-and-breakfast finding app.”
Yes, much of “Prudencia Hart” is told in verse. The more comic the verse, the more obvious the rhyme. Most of the rhyming is more subtle, resonating like Shakespeare’s iambic pentameter with a natural cadence. Later parts of the story are related in prose, the distinction noted.
The plot thickens, abetted by the sometimes manic, sometimes sinister machinations of the first-rate cast, which includes Annie Grace, David McKay and composer Alasdair Macrae. What begins as a satire of academic pedantry takes some unexpected twists, and as Prudencia’s priggish shell is shattered, she sheds her velvet cape and tweed jacket and lets her hair down.
The audience is invited to participate from the start, responding to cues such as a request for “desultory applause” after Prudencia delivers a boring scholarly talk. But when the action is complete, the audience is free to give the production a ringing round of applause.
“The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart”
Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s Upstairs space, at Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave., Chicago
Through Oct. 28, 2012
Tickets $45–$60; 312-595-5600 or chicagoshakes.com
Photos: Drew Farrell