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The smaller room at The Broad Stage in Santa Monica has been repurposed as a tavern with the audience seated at the bar or small round tables throughout the room. A quintet of rambunctiously versatile performers begin playing traditional melodies on the auld instruments on a postage stamp stage befitting a rustic pub, but all the world’s a stage for The National Theatre of Scotland as they present David Greig’s knowing appropriation of “Border Ballads,” Robert Burns and all manner of Gaelic culture, Highland and low. Audience participation will be demanded throughout, beginning with tearing up napkins to make “snow” for a blizzard to frequent interaction with the players, call-and-response and sing-a-longs.
The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart takes the form of a most extended ballad, at yea unto three hours far more epochal than even the “87 verses” announced by an earnest indigenous folkie to lampooning groans by the rest of the cast. Song collector Prudencia Hart (Melody Grove) is the odd woman out at an academic conference: a lonely believer in beauty and seeker of truth amidst pompous post-structuralists, a scholarly variation of Llewyn Davis amongst the philistines, whose culture she cherishes but whose ribald antics she cannot abide except at isolated remove.
It’s a long night of hard partying and “No Exit” at the Bier Baron. Being a ballad, the Devil himself must be given his due, and while Hell may be other people, it can also be an endless reference library for the obsessive-compulsive, or for another matter, a “shite” karaoke night.
Low and high culture coexist in the production as well. Greig writes fluently in rhyming couplets, creating a common, weird speech for all the social classes. Ironically, in Hell it turns out no one speaks anything but a monotonous prose, until after a few millenia Prudencia finds she can actually beat the Devil with the intercession of verse and the freedom conferred by the flexibility of strict meter. Meanwhile, the chameleonic troupe clowns ferociously with an aggressive avalanche of physical comedy while impersonating a vast array of indelible, swaggering caricatures.
Though determinedly spoofy, the text also exhibits immense respect and affection for its satiric targets, most especially the manifestations of and investigations into the bygone mores and expressions of a nearly lost culture lovingly preserved, however imperfectly, by dedicated curators of the oral tradition, each in their own fashion. Greig is a deft wordsmith of outsized ambitions masked by an aversion to grand statements. His gorgeous play The Cosmonaut’s Last Message to the Woman He Once Loved in the Former Soviet Union, when mounted in 2003 in Los Angeles by Open Fist, justly won multiple awards, and just a few months ago his superior translation of Strindberg’s Creditors graced the Odyssey stage.
Wils Wilson’s deceptively unfussy production deftly distracts from the complexity of the show’s many threads, and the game cast appears well-drilled yet up for anything. There’s a lot going on, and underneath all that, a great deal more going on. He’s fashioned a persistently entertaining bricolage of themes that only flags in invention in the perhaps overextended climax, notably less inspired than anything in the hours preceding. The National Theatre of Scotland could tour this extravaganza forever, and it’s welcome finally to arrive here.
Venue: The Broad Stage (Edye Second Space), Santa Monica (through Feb. 8)
Cast: Melody Grove, Alasdair Macrae, Paul McCole, David McKay, Annie Grace
Director: Wils Wilson
Writer: David Greig
Designer: Georgia McGuiness
Composer & Musical Director: Alasdair Macrae
Movement Director: Janice Parker
Presented by The National Theatre of Scotland
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