Hidden inside the Empire Building in downtown Santa Ana is a speakeasy that never opened its doors. Last night the abandoned bar on Broadway finally came to life thanks to the National Theatre of Scotland, who gave a transcendent performance of The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart. The show, presented by the traveling art forum Santa Ana Sites, was the first of a four night run and an adventure that began the moment you walked in the door. A bookcase doubling as a secret doorway swung open into a staging area, where a staff member advised that a ticket for a free shot of whisky could be found inside the program. Not a bad way to kick off a night of theater.
Inside the staging area, a wall made from empty whisky barrels opened up into the main bar, where strands of white lights lined the ceiling and live music played from the corner. The musicians were actually cast members, busy warming up the crowd with Scottish folk songs and introducing themselves to the audience. The interactive feel of the evening was already in full swing as the performers began laying the groundwork for the two-act performance.
“There’s no wall for us to hide behind, we’re up close and personal,” Jessica Hardwick, who plays the role of Prudencia, said before the show. “That’s part of what’s so fascinating about this, we share the space and it truly becomes a collaboration. We use what energy the audience is giving us, and they use what we’re putting out. Working without a stage affects everyone.”
She wasn’t overselling the relationship between the actors and their spectators. From the moment the show began the cast immersed themselves into the crowd, sliding in between tables as narrator Annie Grace unleashed the opening song. Throughout the first act the five performers were climbing onto tables and making themselves comfortable, at one point flinging the arms of a seated audience member out to the sides to use as the handlebars of motorcycle (and that was one of the tamer scenes, we’ll leave the lap dance to the imagination).
The story, written by David Greig, follows Prudencia to hell and back peppering the journey with outrageous scenes spoken in rhyming couplets. While the rhyming could deter less adventurous nightlife lovers, the couplets are injected with enough pop culture references and bawdy banter to make any pub in Scotland (or Santa Ana) proud. The cast continually draws the audience into their uncertain escapade, incorporating music that ranged from traditional Scottish ballads to Katy Perry’s “I Kissed A Girl.”
The show as a whole is incredibly well rounded, balancing risque exchanges with poignant epiphanies. The actors were magnetic, with an undeniable fire burning between Hardwick’s Prudencia and David McKay’s devil. The energy between the two is jarring in the best way possible, and almost tangible in the small venue. A large dose of comedic relief came from Paul McCole, whose character Colin juxtaposed Prudencia’s tightly wound demeanor.
Composer and narrator Alasdair Macrae rounded out the cast, and the multi-instrumentalist shared his thoughts on the audience component before the show saying, “We have a hundred new cast members every night, and they’re entitled to be a part of the show if they like. They may not realize it when they walk in the door, but that’s the way it is.”
With shows running throughout the week, The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart could be a crowning moment for Santa Ana Sites. It’s the first multiple date event since the traveling art forum was founded nearly four years ago, and the cast offers an electric performance that transports the audience into a wild romp filled with whisky and one-liners. Bottom line, it’s an experience that should be captured while it can.
The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart takes place at Empire Theatre, 200 N. Broadway Ave, Santa Ana,. Wed.-Sat., 8 p.m. $20 online; $25 at the door. www.santanasites.com.