Theater Review: “The Undoing of Prudencia Hart” — Lost in Spaciness

By Mary Paula Hunter

Unfortunately, no improvements to the staging will clarify dramatist David Greig’s muddled story line.

The Undoing of Prudencia Hart by David Greig. Directed by Brian Lang. Staged by Wilbury Theatre Group, 40 Sonoma Court, Providence, RI, through February 8.

Meg Sullivan as Prudencia, surrounded by her tormentors, in a scene from the Wilbury Theatre Group’s production of The Undoing of Prudencia Hart. Photo: Wilbury Theatre Group.

Academics usually come off badly in plays and film. In David Greig’s The Undoing of Prudencia Hart, the Scottish version of the ivory tower fits this tired stereotype quite nicely. Take Prudencia Hart, for instance. She is an uptight academic devoted to preserving the ballads of Scotland’s border lands. A smile barely crosses her worried face. So obsessed with a long-lost world of damsels and knights, she’s out of touch with everyday reality. One might say she’s drained of life.

In the first scene of the play, she’s bound for a literary conference somewhere in the wilds of Scotland where she’ll confront her nemesis Colin Syme, a motorcycling, leather-clad literary theorist. Part wolf to Prudencia’s Little Red Riding Hood (her costume includes the hooded coat and later she’ll lose her way in the woods), Syme is one of those egotistical professors that proliferate in the collective unconscious of pop culture.

Prudencia steadfastly resists Colin, not least because he and his like theorize around the ballads, delivering papers at the conference whose turgid titles border on the nonsensical. Prudencia spends most of the first act wincing; after all, she is a connoisseur interested in preserving the beauty of these romantic border ballads. “She’s just a librarian,” one of the theorists laments.

Stuck in the fictional town of Kelso due to a snowstorm, the theorists play at being wild and cool, shedding any vestiges of scholarly reserve as they drink it up with the locals. Prudencia the nerd, always thinking, ditches the revelry, gets lost, and eventually ends up in a tacky Bed and Breakfast that is actually the kind of Hell she’s longed for: a library full of first editions.

This is a wandering stew of a play, overstuffed with literary devices, from rhyming couplets and a Greek chorus to a wayward devil. Songs by Kylie Minogue are thrown in for no apparent reason except that the theorists embrace pop culture as part of their rebellion against the stuffy Prudencia and the “old” tradition of  reading the ballads seriously.

The Wilbury Theatre’s minimal rendition of The Undoing of Prudencia Hart drags on for two-and-a-half hours. Perhaps an effective set — the Wilbury hauled out some tables and chairs but not much else — along with better musicians and singers would have lessened the tedium. Real dancers might help the awkward nightclub scene. Perhaps the leads, Meg Sullivan as Prudencia and Dan Ruppel as Colin Syme, will gain confidence throughout the run. Only the Devil, as played by Marcel Mascaro, resonated with longing and despair.

Unfortunately, no improvements to the staging will clarify dramatist David Greig’s muddled story line. Why Prudencia leaves the book-loving Devil, who shares her passion for the old stories, to take up with the superficial Kyle Syme is anyone’s guess. The playwright, by failing to convincingly set up a dramatic opposition between theorists and connoisseurs, lost his way — not unlike Prudencia in the woods.

Mary Paula Hunter lives in Providence, RI. She’s the 2014 Pell Award Winner for service to the Arts in RI. She is a choreographer and a writer who creates and performs her own text-based movement pieces. In 2019 Hunter published Someone Else, a novel set in her hometown of East Lansing, Michigan.

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