By Montague Gammon III
At the eerie border between this world and the next, wrapped within the blurry boundary that separates what’s natural from what’s not, traveling near the snow bound Scottish-English border in the uncommonly frigid winter of 2010, academic Prudencia Hart found her “Strange Undoing.”
The wholly fictional tale of Professor Prudencia plays out in a mock pub created on the stage of the Harrison Opera House, in the National Theater of Scotland’s production of writer David Greig and director Wil Wilson’s musically rich, semi-cabaret style play, The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, as part of the Virginia Arts Festival.
Ms. Hart, single, is a single minded scholar of Border Ballads, those authentic narrative songs from their namesake region, which often relate tales of supernatural visitations, otherworldly abductions, weird encounters and the like, and the play takes its spirit-filled tone and spirited style from those ballads.
Professor Hart might even be characterized as “obsessed” with those ballads, said actress Jessica Hardwick, who plays Hart on this tour. “They mean everything to her,” Hardwick continued, during a recent phone chat from New Haven, where the troupe was reprising, at Yale’s Gryphon Pub, their 2012 Yale International Festival of Arts & Ideas USA premiere of the show.
Hardwick herself was born in the Border town of Melrose, a mere 14 miles from Kelso, where the story takes place. She’s a 2013 graduate of the Royal Conservatoire of Scotland with a stage resume that ranges from playing a punked-up Rapunzel to doing characters from Chekhov and Dostoyevsky.
Raised “in the middle of nowhere,” she fell in love with theatre as high school student, and was pleasantly surprised to find “you could do it as a job.”
She’s the only actor in Strange Undoing who plays just one character. The other four play a variety of characters, prominent among them being a charming gentleman Hart meets on the road and a fellow scholar who might be Professor Hart’s love interest, and who is assuredly her professional rival.
Those four also do most of the singing and provide most of the instrumental accompaniment in a piece that is primarily a series of ballads itself. Hardwick downplays her own musical abilities, while praising her co-players as “really talented musicians.”
“Rhyme drives the show like a song,” she says.
She terms the play “really immersive.” The performance weaves through the table seated audience, even involving some of those in attendance.
Hardwick is very much the canny Scots lass when it comes to talking about the plot; she does not want any spoilers to diminish the effect of the play. “Come with an open heart and open mind,” she advises, adding “Expect the unexpected.”
“We will take you on a journey” she says, promising “a really fun experience.” “The show affects people in so many ways.”
She also makes the point that pre-show activities, which do much to set the scene for the performance, start a half-hour before the show itself begins, and encourages audience members to arrive early.
The Washington Post described a 2012 staging of Prudencia Hart in D. C. as “heady lyricism of dramatic ingenuity, brewed to the music of table-top harmoniums, Scottish border pipes and other instrumental exotica from the rugged north of the United Kingdom.”
The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart
Created by David Greig (writer) and Wils Wilson (director)
8:00 p.m., April 28-May 1
Harrison Opera House
160 E. Virginia Beach Blvd., Norfolk
Virginia Arts Festival