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Audiences become participants in the immersive Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart
Theatregoers looking for a production that doubles as a party should get quite a kick out of The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart. The creators of this immersive experience, currently running at the McKittrick Hotel, gift the audience with a cèilidh: a convivial evening of Scottish song, dance, and stories set in a pub. "We were interested in that chemistry that happens when a group of people come together and the night just takes off," says director and co-creator Wils Wilson. "It's the sort of night that takes on a life of its own; you can't really understand why it happens on one night and not another. It's a shared experience where you come out at the end and say, 'Did I really do that?'"
With Prudencia, Wilson and her co-creator David Greig have produced an imaginative, interactive, two-hour-plus affair chronicling the bizarre adventures of uptight academic Prudencia Hart. This National Theatre of Scotland show toured around the globe before settling in for its NYC stay, introducing audiences to a raucous night of whiskey and song as well as border ballads and supernatural folklore.
To invoke an authentic atmosphere, the venue's bar The Heath has been transformed into a rustic, warm Scottish pub where audiences take on the role of rowdy patrons. By design, the cast and crew encourage revelers to get to know one another. First, take a free shot of whiskey. Second, make a mess. Performers visit each table, entreating the viewers to shred their paper napkins into impromptu fake snow. "These things gradually just break down the formality; break down the veneer of polite distance that we all have from each other," says Wilson.
With a skeletal design and minimal but potent props, like alcohol, instruments, and books, the audience helps the cast conjure the tale. As Prudencia travels from Edinburgh to Kelso, a tiny border town, she finds herself in increasingly uncomfortable situations. A leading expert on Scottish ballads and the topography of Hell, she idolizes 16th-century folk tales bursting with romance, verse, and poetry. Yet she lacks a song of her own. Darting from a booze-riddled karaoke bar after facing ridicule from colleagues, she encounters a strange but charming man who escorts her to her B & B, which has an impressively curated library of cherished ballads. Act I ends with everyone, including Prudencia, wondering, "What is this place and who is this man?"
It's by design that the second half has a very different tone. Audiences begin as energized props, but later they're integrated into the show so they experience everything the heroine does. "That's really an important part of it -- that people lose themselves in the second half," says Wilson. "It's partly just the nature of how we wanted to take people to an emotional place with Prudencia, and I think to do that, you want people to lose themselves in the storytelling and in the character of the situation."
At the conclusion, viewers revert to barflies, finishing their drinks and singing along with the cast. It's an immersive experience that sparks all five senses and demands audiences become personally invested. "You go on the same journey as Prudencia," says Wilson. "We want everyone to be undone, feel something, and really be emotionally connected. I think that's the power of the story as well. The story takes you."
Follow Josh Austin at @thejoshaust. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.
Top image: Melody Grove; photos by Jenny Anderson.
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