By Kimberly Rau
Sheltered academic Prudencia Hart is already irritated when she makes her way to an out-of-the-way conference on Scottish border ballads, her area of study. She’s anticipating the cool dismissal of her contemporaries, who are more interested in comparing these folk tales to Instagram or looking for the hidden feminist trajectory in the words. And she’s correct. But when a perfect storm of bad weather, alcohol and, oh yes, the fact that it’s the time of year when the devil is allowed to try to tempt maidens to an eternity in hell, Prudencia Hart, the top expert in “the topography of Hell,” gets more than she’s bargained for entirely. Hell, it turns out, is a place where no one remembers her scholarly excellence, and, worse, no one cares to argue about it.
That’s the premise of David Grieg’s “The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart,” which The Wilbury Group opened this weekend after years of trying to secure the rights. Set in modern-day Scotland, the show, which is designed to be performed for small audiences, preferably in local pubs, is an intimate, bawdy, no-holds-barred flight into what could be a surrealistic nightmare, or simply a whiskey-fueled fever dream. We never really find out. Regardless, our heroine emerges from her torment with a new outlook, even if the people she left behind for a millennium or two have no idea what’s happened at all (you don’t age in Hell, it turns out).
Our two key players are Nick, aka the devil himself, played by Marcel Mascaro; and Prudencia, played by Meg Sullivan. Mascaro gives us a self-important, sarcastic, slightly androgynous devil, who seems to realize that Prudencia may be more trouble than he anticipated. Prudencia is the one who, used to rigorously defending her work, attempts to use her knowledge of the underworld to escape…but in the end, it’s her feminine wiles that provide her the best hope of rescue. Sullivan takes Hart’s wallflower personality and makes us believe she’s capable of the impossible. Both actors give commanding performances.
But this truly is an ensemble show, with four extremely talented cast members switching sexes, occupations, and motivations seamlessly throughout the two-hour production. Jason Quinn is, depending on which scene we’re looking at, a self-important academic, an off-key pub singer or a woman obsessed with Colin Syme (Dan Ruppel, whose Colin ends up being the hero Prudencia neither expected nor desired). His comic timing and commanding presence sell whatever role he’s embracing. Ruppel as Colin is the light to Nick’s dark, as well as the person who unwittingly drives Prudencia out to get lost in the snow in the first place. Clare Blackmer and Ava Mascena are academics, barflies or men who can’t play their own instruments, and are believable and engaging throughout. And Shannon Hartman, who was last on Wilbury’s stage as Medium Allison in “Fun Home,” plays all of the aforementioned ensemble roles but also treats us to her voice as one of the strange singing characters Prudencia encounters out in the snow.
Directed by Brien Lang, “The Strange Undoing” is a wild ride with an even wilder plot, but if you can suspend your disbelief farther than you ever have before, and maybe grab a drink (the bar, the actors will remind you, is open), you’ll be glad you went on the journey.
The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart runs through Feb. 2 at the Wilbury Theatre Group, 40 Sonoma Court, Providence. For tickets, visit www.thewilburygroup.org or call 401-400-7100.