A taste of Scottish culture and an extraordinary journey can be washed down with an ice-cold beer, courtesy of a traveling troupe of actors who will perform in one of D.C.’s popular bars.
Bier Baron Tavern on 22nd Street in DC will be commandeered for four weeks by the National Theatre of Scotland for their tour stop of The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, courtesy of Shakespeare Theatre Company.
A hit at the 2011 Edinburgh Fringe Festival, the site-specific theatre piece has toured the United Kingdom and now makes its way across the United States, turning American bars and taverns into a Scottish pub. At each performance, the actors and musicians fire up a cèilidh that is a precursor to the story of a stuffy academic and her journey to meet the Devil.
With the actors performing in taverns, the audience is not detached from the action by a separate seating section. The patrons make up 50 percent of the performance, according to Wils Wilson, director of The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart.
“It’s really about building a specific relationship between the audience and the performers,” she said. “This show seems to connect with people; there is an honest and immediate connection. The audience sees the actors up close, the sweat on their brows.”
Wilson spoke to DC Theatre Scene by phone from Edinburgh as she prepared to join the five-member Scottish troupe in Washington, D.C. for part of the American tour.
Her trip to Washington will also be the first time she steps foot in the venue chosen for this leg of the tour. She has only seen images of the Bier Baron Tavern so far. “It has this really interesting shape, the bar there, and I thought it might be good to be there. I come over every now and again.”
Music helps pull the audience into the experience as they take their seats.
“When they come in to where the play is going to be done, there is a convivial feeling. The play is full of music, which helps us because music cuts across cultural lines.”
But music is not just used a soundtrack: it is part and parcel of the performance which is based on the oral tradition of the ballad.
Playwright David Grieg, working closely with Wilson, started with a simple idea. “It was just a notion that came to us one day, seeing someone up on a table playing the violin,” Wilson said. As the idea developed, they kept going back to the idea of the ballads. “Ballads are dramatic, and they are great storytelling on their own,” she said.
They received assistance from an expert in the tradition – a ballad selector – to decide specific ballads which to choose. The challenge, said Wilson, was “every time a ballad would be told, like other oral traditions, it would be changed or embellished in the telling and retelling.”
In the beginning, the creators had no idea the entire piece would be a ballad itself. Wilson said it became clear to the writer, however. “David said ‘it’s got to rhyme,’ and we realized then it seemed to be obvious, we were making a modern ballad.”
Once Grieg began writing in verse, Wilson said it took off. “It began taking us where it needed to take us, it took on its own energy. Like David said, it was like a bucking bronco.”
Prudencia Hart thinks she is going to a conference on the ancient tradition of ballads. Headed to the small town of Kelso, wishing she were able to finish her dissertation examining Hell, Ms. Hart gets far more of an adventure.
“She gets snowed in, lost in the snow, in fact,” explained Wilson. “Then it’s her story that’s being told in the pub, in the form of a ballad, which she is an expert on.”
Grieg made the character of Prudencia Hart, at first glance, an unlikely one for a journey to meet the devil. She is so reserved and conservative, her nickname is “Prude.”
In the pub, she must fight off advances by colleague Colin. As the play shifts to the surreal, she meets an apparition and even has a discourse with the Devil himself.
The Devil figures in many of the ballads and lore of Scotland, such as the works of Robert Burns (“Tam O’Shanter,” “Address to the Devil”). But there is more to it than a reference to old poetry, said Wilson.
Bridging the gap between this world and the next, “that’s where we come back to borders, but the borders between experiences, where even the Devil can make an appearance. These can be very dramatic stories, meeting with the Devil.”
The mythic meets the contemporary in Prudencia Hart, where singer Kylie Minogue and even Costco are mentioned. “This is a modern tale, happening now, but it shows that the Devil is always around.”
As Prudencia experiences her undoing, Wilson said the audience is right in the middle of her dark journey. They even help create the snowstorm.
“Originally we didn’t know we wanted the audience to make the snow. That moment grew out of the tour. Originally the actors did it, but we had the audience members tear their napkins to make the snow.”
One night during a performance, an audience member had extra pieces of napkin and decided the throw it himself. “It just kind of caught on” from there, Wilson said.
It is in moments like that, she explained, which can elevate the experience of performing in the intimacy of a non-traditional venue, such as a tavern. “When we have moments like that, where things happen spontaneously, it’s really about sharing with the audience.”
Audiences do not seem to mind. “They seem so happy doing that sort of thing. And it’s something that helps the play to grow as it keeps changing.”
The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart
November 13 – December 9, 2012
Bier Baron Tavern
1523 22nd Street NW
Washington DC 20037
Tuesdays thru Sundays
Presented by Shakespeare Theatre Company
There have also been minor changes to the text of the play for American audiences, she said. “Even though we share the same language, we have cultural differences.”
“We changed some lines and references” to help clarify things. “For example in Scotland ‘an allotment’ is a vegetable patch but in the States, it has a different connotation.”
Audiences on the tour seem to be embracing the Scottish import. “We feel like we’ve found our feet in America, and we keep making small adjustments. But people love it and we are having a fantastic tour.”
The play has already hit Columbus, Ohio, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, and Chicago, and will continue past the Washington, D.C. engagement to Michigan, Texas, California and Vancouver.
No matter where The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart plays, visitors will share in a journey that puts real people along side mythic beings, like the Devil himself.
And you never know when he might show up, according to Wilson. “You might just get lost in a town in the snow and find out Hell is near the Costco.”
Notes: Regardless of age, every patron will be required to show ID.
Patrons under 21 must be accompanied by a legal guardian.
The Shakespeare Theatre Company has partnered with Parking Panda to ensure that patrons driving to the Bier Baron to attend The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart can reserve parking in the area. STC patrons can follow this link to reserve discounted parking by creating an account with Parking Panda. Enter promo code: STCSHOWS at checkout to receive an additional 10% off.
trailer from the 2011 production in Scotland