Doing ‘Prudencia Hart’ in ‘Strange’ surroundings

Matt McClain/FOR THE WASHINGTON POST - Melody Grove of the play, "The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart" at Irish Whiskey Public House in Washington, DC.

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You can’t get Melody Grove out of the bars these days, and nobody seems to mind.

In fact, she’s being actively encouraged to hop from pub to pub in city after city, dashing among the tables in each watering hole, speaking in a very loud voice, even accosting total strangers. What’s more, the strangers like it so much they pay to watch her do it — her, along with the other members of her noisy little gang, who in their own eccentric fashion are adding a beguiling theater chaser to the regular taproom fare.

Grove and the others are deep into this endeavor at the Bier Baron Tavern on 22nd Street NW, where their interactive play, “The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart,” is revealing to Washingtonians a charmingly unlikely place for stage curtains to rise. The National Theatre of Scotland production, hosted by the Shakespeare Theatre Company, transports audiences to a cozy bar in the Scottish Borders, where through songs and rhyming couplets, the actors tell the mystical story of a prim academic in love with the past, by the name of Prudencia Hart.

The actress, a mere three years out of the Royal Scottish Academy of Music and Drama, plays the title character, our touchstone for a strange supernatural romance that takes us to hell and back. She and four colleagues perform all of the roles and play all of the music in the 21 / 2 -hour production. The show, on its first American tour, has visited big cities and smaller college towns, showing surprised patrons that a play can even be performed right there on the tabletop where they’ve parked their beers. The tour wraps up Sunday before the actors head back to the United Kingdom.

“I’ve had a few who aren’t comfortable,” Grove said the other day, recounting her experiences with “Prudencia” audiences as she sat in another pub, Irish Whiskey Public House, on 19th Street NW. “But people tend to be okay with the rules. Some even shout out and stuff — we encourage that rowdy Scottish spirit.”

“Prudencia Hart” is the brainchild of playwright David Greig and director Wils Wilson, whose notion was the creation of a thoroughly portable piece of theater, one that could rapidly pick up and go, relying on site-specific venues to supply the atmosphere for their darkly funny tall tale.

“We were thinking, ‘Wouldn’t it be great to have a show which you could take to any village hall or pub?’ ” Wilson said by phone from Yorkshire, England. “That’s part of the reason that we wanted to keep it very light on its feet. It goes around in a few suitcases.”

It started as a touring production in Scotland and then last summer made a major splash — as many innovative performance pieces do — at the Edinburgh Fringe, where it was seen by representatives of some American theater companies, including Shakespeare’s managing director, Chris Jennings. He’d already forged a relationship with officials of Scotland’s national theater through the booking of its celebrated and widely traveled production of “Black Watch.”

Still, Wilson says, she and Greig wondered whether a play redolent of such specific Scottish traditions and terminology would make immediate sense here. “We relied on their judgment, on whether their audiences would really get it,” she said. “When you take something like this to a new place, it’s full of unknowns.”

It’s true that a piece chronicling a conference of experts on the nuances of Scottish Border ballads was far more of a stretch than if the characters had been, as they are in “Black Watch,” Scottish soldiers fighting in the long shadow of U.S. Marines in Iraq. Oddly enough, though, Greig and Wilson needn’t have worried. By altering just a few cultural references, meanings remained clear. They were relieved, she said, to find out that the parking lot of “a lower-range supermarket” mentioned in the play could easily be switched to one at Costco, because the chain exists in both countries.

Grove, who grew up in the English countryside south of London, comes from a large, artistic family: Her father is a musician and her mother a professional storyteller. She was cast as Prudencia for the tour after the actress who originated the role in Scotland received another offer. Everyone else has been with the show since the beginning, so Grove had some catching up to do.

“They were very welcoming to me, and I was terrified,” she said. And as the piece requires extraordinary proximity to the public, she had to become comfortable quickly with a highly intimate style of theater.

“It’s pretty intense,” she said. “I’ve never known anything like it. That ‘wall’ thing,’ ” she added, referring to the stage convention of the invisible wall between actors and audience. “You just have to jump through it.”

Aside from the five actors, only two backstage staffers travel with the production, so it really is a matter of just packing up the instruments and costumes and shuffling to the next town, with a day or so off in between. During stops in some smaller American locales, the extremity of the interactivity caused some shock; at its most invasive moment, two actors pick out an unsuspecting young man and, using him as a prop, proceed to do the nasty.

“I think a lot of them were quite bewildered,” Grove observed about the audience they encountered in West Lafayette, Ind., home to Purdue University and perhaps a place not yet jaded by such aggressively sexual bits of the theatrical. “It was like, ‘What have we come into, with these crazy Scottish people?’ ”

On the other hand, she said, the sight one night of a pastor in clerical garb, laughing louder than anyone, seemed a huge vote of confidence.

Virtually all of the audience encounters have been of this jocular variety. You’d think that the libations served during the performance might fuel some outrageous behavior, as actors go through their table-side scene work.

But no, close quarters have not provoked unwanted intrusions. If anything, Grove said, the spectator exchanges have been sweet and warm, even when the liquor has had an effect.

“We had a woman in Chicago who was wonderful,” Grove recalled. “She’d had quite a bit to drink, and during our curtain call, she came and high-fived all of us.”

In traditional settings, this would be considered gauche. But at “Prudencia Hart,” it isn’t a strange doing at all.

The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart

runs through Sunday at Bier Baron Tavern, 1523 22nd St. NW. Call 202-547-1122 or go to www.shakespearetheatre.org.

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