Theater

People Are Strange: Wilbury’s Prudencia Hart is wonderfully eccentric

There’s Scottish music, wild drunken karaoke antics and Hell. If there was a word to describe Prudencia Hart’s undoing, “strange” is it. After years of waiting for the performance rights, Wilbury Theatre Group is finally bringing this wild ride, The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart (directed by Brien Lang), to the stage (and a few local bars) for its Rhode Island debut.

First impressions make Prudencia seem a lot like the musical Once. Wilbury’s space is set up like a cozy pub. Before the show begins, as the drinks flow, so too does the music, as the ensemble, who double as instrumentalists, play a set of Scottish tunes, from the traditional (including a song in Gaelic) to the Proclaimers (music direction by Jeff Kerr, applying his expertise in Scottish music). If you have ever wanted the craic of live music in a Scottish pub, be sure to arrive early. This, however, is where the similarities with Once end. Once the story starts, the two have little in common.

Prudencia Hart (Meg Sullivan) is an academic collector of traditional Scottish ballads attending a conference on the subject in the bordertown of Kelso. Between a blizzard that leaves her stranded, a rather embarrassing incident at a panel discussion and the presence of her ideological antithesis, Colin Syme (Dan Ruppel), things could hardly get any worse. A truly heinous karaoke night at a bar sends her out into the night to find her bed and breakfast, despite the warnings of the locals about midwinter’s eve: a night upon which “the past and present kiss,” the devil may take souls into Hell before their time. But why should Prudencia care? This isn’t a ballad, after all.

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Well, the rhyming couplets in which the story is told beg to differ.

Sullivan’s Prudencia comes across as soft-spoken and mild-mannered, but passionate about the ballads she has devoted her life to and endlessly frustrated at her colleagues’ lack of appreciation for their beauty. Of course, it takes the most impressive library in any realm to ensnare her in the devil’s grasp. The devil here (in a riveting performance by Marcel Mascaro) is a bit of an edgelord who genuinely seems to take interest in Prudencia’s work and is eventually ensnared in turn by her charms. The two have a rather Beauty and the Beast-type of relationship, what with the impressive library and Stockholm Syndrome. Ruppel’s motorcycle-riding, latest technology-wielding Colin exists as her foil, the present to Prudencia’s past and her unlikely hero in a climactic scene of drunken staggering and steadfast devotion even in the face of evil.

Rounding out the cast is the ensemble (Jason Quinn, Clare Blackmer, Shannon Hartman and Ava Mascena), who function as narrators, stuffy academics and Kelso locals having a wild night. Hartman, in particular, gives a hauntingly beautiful performance as a ghostly figure singing a Scottish folk song acapella, illuminated by a head lamp worn by Prudencia (lighting design by Devin Mooney).

Part-ballad, part-romantic comedy, part-Faustian tale, Prudencia cannot be pinned down. It’s a marriage of past and present, with modern day references delivered in cheeky rhymes (written by David Greig). This is a strange one, as the title suggests, which is probably not for everyone, but if you can get past the rhyming and weirdness, Prudencia is a celebration of where tradition meets modern culture, with a smattering of comedy and music.

The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart runs through Feb 2 at Wilbury Theatre Group, with performances at local bars TROOP, Riffraff and The Wild Colonial on select dates. For tickets and more information, visit thewilburygroup.org

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