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Raise your glass to 'Prudencia Hart'

THEATER REVIEW: "The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart" in the Upstairs Theater at Chicago Shakespeare ★★★½

Chris Jones

11:51 AM CDT, September 27, 2012

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It's quite the tartan moment in Chicago. The Ryder Cup gets under way at the Medinah Country Club. Scottish First Minister Alex Salmond is here schmoozing with business leaders and talking increased Scottish independence. And Chicago Shakespeare Theater is hosting a production by the National Theatre of Scotland, "The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart," with another one, "Black Watch," set to open in Chicago even before "Prudencia Hart" has undone herself sufficiently in Chicago to leave town.

As Salmond — hopefully — already knows, the National Theatre of Scotland is a remarkable theater company very much at one with its moment.

Perhaps better that any other flagship-type theatrical institution, these freewheeling, travel-loving, theatrical Scots understand that people don't necessarily want to spend their precious night off sitting in some posh theater being educated on the history of ancient Scottish drarm-ah but are happier when it feels like a ripe, lively yarn is coming to them, in this case a tall tale celebrating the culture and musical tradition of the border country while acknowledging current Scottish culture also includes such border crossers as Kylie Minogue and Costco.

"Prudencia Hart" actually is a culturally complex piece about the titular academic, an uptight young graduate student (for the record, there were a few of Prudencia's stateside doppelgangers in the audience Wednesday night, although they loosened up), who dresses like she buys only at the Edinburgh Woollen Mill.

The heroine of this five-actor piece must, before the night is out, come to understand that border ballads are not just fodder for pompous academic conferences but are, first and foremost, a celebration of life and death, with plenty of booze and sexuality thrown in. The writer, David Greig, gets in plenty of licks at pompous cultural critics, self-serving folkic conferences and the easily assailed like, what with their tape recorders and post-structuralist jargon about songs that have always been, for God's sake, by, for and from the people.

But, for all that, "Prudencia Hart" is, first and foremost, conceived by its director, Wils Wilson as a witty, ebullient, freeing, bacchanalian night out with friends — or maybe just one friend, who might get fired up by all the ghosts, musical devilry and sensual discoveries going on, maybe right on top of your actual table.

The audience is indeed seated pub-style, and Scottish ale, which long has been my favorite ale of all (we won't talk here about how badly the brewery Tennent's has treated its Chicago drinkers), flows throughout. This is a kind of shared, warm-spirited storytelling (the story is too much for the five actors to handle alone) and so there's a lot of audience involvement in "Prudencia Hart."

I go to a show most every night of my working life, and I don't think I've ever heard a performer request "desultory applause." It was asked for here, and delivered, precisely as ordered. That's the kind of enthusiasm you get pretty easily when you're serving single-malt Scotch (Benromach, if you're wondering; research and care for the reader demanded I made sure it was up to snuff and, well, if the prose seems especially purple tonight, now you know why). Given the cumulation of all these attractions, I suspect tickets will sell faster than a kilted piper looking for a space-heater on a chilly night in Chicago.

Superbly smart and dense, the piece is written mostly in rhyming couplets, a formative nod to its themes. It's very funny in places ("We would begin with Prudencia's birth/Or her use of objects to maintain self-worth" or, better yet, "Don't they say at these academic beanos/The best chat happens over cappuccinos?") and a tad precious in others, notably in the second act, which has dull stretches and could use a haircut.

The night's star, the entrancingly beautiful and enigmatic Melody Grove, holds her character's complex progression together, although this young actress will be better yet when she drops some of that acting-school overarticulation and overeagerness in favor of deeper vulnerability and a stronger sense of the price her woman must pay for her discoveries of the dark corners of the border ballad.

Grove's colleagues — Annie Grace, Andy Clark, Alasdair MacRae (who is especially funny) and David McKay (the most complex actor on the stage) — are all skilled, hugely entertaining performers who knock themselves out doing a show that requires all kinds of risky interactions with the folks, not to mention huge amounts of energy.

I won't give away too much; suffice to say, the story has things in common with the great Conor McPherson drama "The Seafarer." McPherson, of course, is Irish, but then the great storytelling Celtic devils know no boundaries. Some even win at golf.

cjones5@tribune.com

Twitter@ChrisJonesTrib

When: Through Oct. 28.

Where: The Upstairs Theater at Chicago Shakespeare Theater, 800 E. Grand Ave.

Running time: 2 hours, 30 minutes.

Tickets: $45-$60 at 312-595-5600 and chicagoshakes.com.