My Fair Lady at Arena Stage and The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart at Bier Baron, Reviewed
An acerbic academic gets wild and crazy with Old Scratch one midwinter's night, and that's not even the most unlikely event in The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart, a singular exercise in site-specific programming booked in at Bier Baron, a Dupont Circle pub, courtesy of the Shakespeare Theatre Company. Shipped in from Edinburgh complete with a cast from the National Theatre of Scotland, it's a sometimes rowdy, occasionally melancholy yarn inspired by a Scots folk tradition called the border ballad—long, lyrical tall tales "dealing with heroic deeds, supernatural encounters, love, passion and death," as a helpful handout explains—and it's just different enough from the usual D.C. theater offering to be an entertaining evening out.
Those border ballads, conveniently enough, are Prudencia's field of study, which is why she's off to the border town of Kelso, where she and her laddish colleague Colin will deliver contending papers on the topic. (He's a boundary-pusher who parses the cultural significance of trending tweets and derides Prudencia for her fusty readings of what he thinks of as dusty relics.) After her lecture tanks and a blizzard blows up, Prudencia finds herself snowed in at the local pub with Colin and the other conference-panel insufferables. On Midwinter's Eve, no less—which is when the locals believe the Devil emerges through night's veil to claim a new soul. Once the other scholars are hammered enough to begin a karaoke bacchanal, Prudencia lights out for a nearby bed and breakfast, where her host will turn out to be...well, just you guess.
Lessons are learned and loves are lost as the players spin rhyming yarns and croon venerable ballads, moving among the audience and leaping on tables and occupying the occasional lap. At two and a half hours, the evening can feel a little overstuffed—that pub orgy in particular feels overlong and overloud—but the cast is by and large terrific, and its quieter passages shimmer with a fey loveliness. And hey, your program comes with a free shot of single malt—so don't forget your ID.
I can't think of many reasons to mess with My Fair Lady, which is one of the American theater's more perfect unions of song and story, but many a director has had trouble resisting the urge to put a personal or political stamp on a show. Arena Stage's artistic director, Molly Smith, had a runaway hit back in 2010 with an Oklahoma that had been put through a race-conscious wringer, so it may have seemed perfectly sensible to cast an Chinese-American/Native American actress as Cockney guttersnipe Eliza Doolittle and an Asian-American actor as her boozehound father Alfie. One wonders, however, if anyone asked whether they could sing.
OK, that's too harsh—sort of, at least as regards Manna Nichols, who gets through highlights like "The Rain In Spain" and "I Could Have Danced All Night" with a prettyish (if thin) silver soubrette. Her breath control is suspect, though, and it's got her taking catch breaths midway through phrases that should spin more gracefully out. No punches pulled for James Saito, though; he talk-sings Alfie's "Get Me to the Church on Time" in a tone-deaf, unnuanced baritone that makes you long for the effortless fake-it-'til-you-make-it of Rex Harrison.
No such issue for Nicholas Rodriguez, the matinee-handsome singer-actor playing hapless, smitten Freddy Eynsford-Hill. His voice is a luscious butterscotch tenor, with enough classical training to let him unspool long lines—and even skip obvious breath breaks to hold high notes and whipsaw the audience giddily around into the next phrase. It's a pity Lerner and Loewe gave him just that one solo to revel in.
As the linguist Henry Higgins and his co-conspirator Colonel Pickering—the layabouts who dream up the story's famous bet as to whether Higgins can teach coarse, uneducated Eliza enough about diction and manners to pass her off as a princess at a ball—Benedict Campbell and Thomas Adrian Simpson make their scenes entertaining enough, but Sherri L. Edelen and especially Catherine Flye steal their thunder as soon as they step onstage, the former doing unflappable exasperation as Higgins' put-upon housekeeper, Mrs. Pearce, and the latter serving wonderfully withering maternal realness as his disapproving mother.
The costumes, by Judith Bowden, are Arena-ishly lavish without seeming to have much of a point, especially the Steampunk-inflected Edwardiana she's cooked up for the Cockneys. Daniel Pelzig has phoned the choreography quite thoroughly in.
As for Smith's unflashy staging of the book scenes, it communicates just enough about Eliza's dilemma, as it dawns on her that the men don't give a hoot for her as a person, that it's almost beside the point that her increasing crush on Higgins remains as incredible as ever. (Really? You're falling for him why, again?) Taken all together, it adds up to a My Fair Lady that's fair-to-middling at best.
The National Theatre of Scotland performs The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart at Bier Baron Tavern to Dec. 9. My Fair Lady runs to Jan. 6 at Arena Stage.