Since March 2011, audiences in masks have been roaming around the McKittrick Hotel in Chelsea, following characters into nearly every nook and cranny in Punchdrunk’s Sleep No More, a show, inspired by Macbeth, that redefined immersive theater. Now the same production company, Emursive, is presenting a twist on theatrical immersion with the National Theatre of Scotland’s international hit The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, which continues at the McKittrick’s Heath Bar through April 23. This time, instead of the audience chasing the characters, the characters, who don masks at one point, move throughout the pub, talking to audience members, weaving around the space, sitting and standing on tables and chairs, and requesting audience help manufacturing some paper props. Created by writer David Greig (who appropriately enough wrote Dunsinane, a sequel to Macbeth) and director Wils Wilson, The Strange Undoing is about Edinburgh academic Prudencia Hart (Melody Grove), who is attending a conference in Kelso on border ballads, folk songs that were most famously written and collected by Sir Walter Scott. Also at the conference is Prudencia’s archrival, the motorcycle-riding Dr. Colin Syme (Paul McCole), who is described as “Dr. Colin Syme blokeish — obsessed with his kit / He’d eat himself if he was a biscuit.” (Much of the tale is related in delightful rhythmic couplets.) Snowed in on Midwinter’s Night, the prudish Prudencia rejects Colin’s offer to stay with him and instead makes her way through a Costco parking lot to a bed and breakfast that appears to be run by the devil himself (Peter Hannah). Meanwhile, musical director Alasdair Macrae and Annie Grace play multiple roles as well as various instruments, singing traditional ballads in addition to shanties written for the show, imbedded with a sly sense of humor. There’s even karaoke.
There are also plenty of self-referential treats. “This is exactly the sort of snow that if it were in a border ballad would poetically presage some kind of doom for an innocent heroine or an encounter on the moor with a sprite or villain or the losing of the heroine’s selfhood in the great white emptiness of the night,” Prudencia says at a critical juncture. Movement director Janice Parker keeps the cast, dressed in terrific period costumes with a contemporary twist, from knocking into the customers on Georgia McGuinness’s set, as references are made to the Proclaimers and Kylie Minogue, such topics as “Border Ballads: Neither Border nor Ballad?” and “The Topography of Hell in Scottish Balladry” are raised, the legendary ballad character Tam Lin is discussed, and free shots of Scotch are offered before the show and complementary finger sandwiches are passed around at intermission. As with Sleep No More, the more you invest yourself into the proceedings, the more you will get out of it. Our enjoyment of the production was enhanced by our tablemates, who just happened to be the parents of one of the actors, making for some great conversation and many toasts. It’s all devilishly good fun, a time-traveling ballad that would make Sir Walter Scott proud.