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Spoleto's The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart promises immersive whimsy

Strange Magic

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Welcome to almost-Spoleto-season, Charleston. We're expanding our pre-season coverage of Spoleto shows this year, giving you a taste of shows well in advance — both so you can snag tickets, and also just so you can deep dive into your own research about each performance.

You can imagine that if The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart was pitched as a movie, it wouldn't go well. As director Wils Wilson summarizes, "It's about academic Prudencia Hart who studies these border ballads, Scottish poems or songs that are really dramatic stories of death and life. She's quite uptight and constrained. What the ballad does is takes her on a journey that's almost like its own ballad. She gets stranded at a conference in the snow in Scotland. She's in a pub with terrible karaoke. She bumps into a strange man who ends up being the devil and she gets dragged in for eternity with him." Oh, and it's entirely written in rhyme.

That concept may not translate to the silver screen, but for the National Theater of Scotland, it's been a smash hit. The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart is the collaborative work of Wilson and playwright David Greig and The New York Times calls it "the ultimate shaggy Satan story."

Without giving too much away, Wilson says the play, written in a Border Ballad format, takes the audience to a karaoke bar in Kelso, Scotland where Prudencia comes face to face with the devil himself.

Serving as the space for Spoleto's run is Woolfe Street Playhouse where the audience will receive a taste of whisky as they enter. This is critical to Wilson's immersive style of directing. Wilson got her start running a theater company, Wilson and Wilson, entirely in non-theater spaces.

"This was in the early 2000s and we did plays in deserted houses and department stores. In the woods. On a tram. We were taking audiences on journeys and to places that they didn't know where they were going," she says. While Prudencia technically will take place in Woolfe Street's traditional theater space, Wilson takes the same approach — don't expect the players to be confined to the stage here either.

"Because we do it in bars and pubs and not in theaters, it has a kind of in room reality about it. It's very immediate, although it's very direct. You never pretend the audience isn't there. The audience is really a part of the event. If they weren't there, it couldn't happen. It's a really live experience. It's far and away from something digital. It's a really good story and the atmosphere and conviviality of sharing a good night goes to fun places and dark places sometimes."

Don't expect elaborate sets either. "It's like the beginning of Henry V when they say 'We haven't got any horses. You're going to have to imagine them,'" says Wilson of the blank slate approach. Instead, a handful of props and a super talented cast make up for lighting and design.

Oh and there's singing. Musical director Alasdair Macrae wrote the score and each member of the five person ensemble plays instruments as well as sings. The Times describes the madness as "populist highbrow or perhaps raised lowbrow (you might want to bone up on Kylie Minogue songs)."

It's all light-hearted fun until the second act when Prudencia literally dances with the devil.

"But because she's brilliant and clever and goes on her own journey of self discovery she escapes," reveals Wilson.

We won't give away anymore, but suffice it to say, The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart will be unlike anything else you see at Spoleto — or really anywhere else.

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