What do you call a play that features rhyming couplets, a battle with Satan, and a dance number set to Kylie Minogue's "Can't Get You Out of My Head"? Depending on the audience, the answer might be "a riot" or "just plain bizarre." Both descriptions fit David Greig's The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, which Artists Repertory Theatre is presenting in a zany, ambitious production.
Directed by Dámaso Rodríguez and Luan Schooler, Prudencia Hart will probably irritate as many people as it charms. Yet warring playgoers may agree it is a fascinating slab of theater—an edgy genre fusion (the story contains elements of horror, musicals and romantic comedies) that consistently seizes your attention, even when it leaves you baffled by its strangeness or frustrated with its messiness.
With its usual performance space undergoing renovation, Artists Rep has spent the year setting up shop at venues across the city. Prudencia Hart is being staged in an auditorium at the Tiffany Center in a style that probably wouldn't have been possible at the company's old digs. Instead of stadium-style seats, the room is filled with round tables where audience members are allowed to partake from a menu that includes fish and chips and whiskey (dinner begins at 6:45 pm; other pre-show attractions include the Katie Jane Band and dance lessons).
The food offers a taste of Scotland, where the title character (Amy Newman) studies traditional Scottish folklore. After a snowstorm traps her with her academic nemesis—the smug, motorcycle-riding Colin Syme (Eric Little)—the two are ensnared in a nighttime odyssey that includes a crazed karaoke session and a journey to hell, where Satan, who goes by Nick (Darius Pierce), cheerily conspires to trap Prudencia for eternity (the story is similar to the tale of Tam Lin, a character from Scottish ballads who is the subject of an essay by Prudencia).
The devil turns out to be as funny as he is terrifying—Pierce wears red eye shadow, a plaid suit and a pair of fuzzy hooves that look like next-generation UGGs. Yet Prudencia Hart is more than a hellish satire. The second act is devoted to the relationship between Nick and his unwilling muse, a bond with hints of both Stockholm syndrome and true affection. Prudencia is drawn to her captor's intellect (Hell has a vast library, apparently) and Nick is so beguiled he serenades her by singing Robert Burns' "A Red, Red Rose."
That moment achieves a level of grace the play sometimes lacks. It can be exciting to watch the performers swiftly navigate the auditorium's maze of dining tables, but there are drawbacks to the production's seemingly boundless verve. It is vexing, for instance, that the action covers so much of the space you occasionally find yourself having to gaze toward painfully bright lights to follow the story.
Greig's sense of humor doesn't help matters—he appears to think his jokes won't amuse audiences unless they are fired like bullets from a machine gun. Comedic flourishes that should have been curbed get dragged out interminably, including a joke about a man's testicles freezing and a tiresome scene in which the audience is asked to sing "One Colin Syme/There's only one Colin Syme" to the tune of "Guantanamera" multiple times.
Yet the play perks up in moments of oddball brilliance. Many scenes successfully harness playgoer participation (including one where the audience is asked to enhance the story's wintry milieu by shredding their napkins to create fake snow), and Greig's rhymes are entertainingly snarky (highlights include Prudencia's description of Colin: "He's always got the most up-to-date crap: a bed-and-breakfast-finding app").
Prudencia Hart is not for everyone, but neither is it for no one. It may be chaotic and overstuffed (the production lasts about two-and-a-half hours), but it can also be uproarious, even moving. For all its faults, it is by far the finest Satanic adventure-comedy-love story of 2019.
SEE IT: The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart is at the Tiffany Center, 1410 SW Morrison St., artistsrep.org. 7:30 pm Thursday-Sunday, through Jan. 5. $35-$60.