I arrived at Corner Brewery at 7:26 p.m., knowing little about the event except that they wouldn’t let anyone in after 7:30. A small lady with a startling strong Scottish accent handed me an informational flyer and explained that the bar would only be open for another minute, but I’d have a chance to get drinks at the intermission.
I caught a glance of Ypsi Gypsi scribbled on the chalkboard menu and feverishly made my way to the crowded bar. The place was packed to capacity and I realized I was perhaps the youngest person in the room. As I took a seat in the back at an elevated table, a group of five musicians began playing a folk tune on the opposite side of the room and the crowd fell silent.
The music was beautiful, but I couldn’t understand what they were saying. The song went on slowly and the words seemed to lose their way before reaching my ears. I wondered if anyone else would be able to enjoy this for two and a half hours. Then, abruptly, the playing stopped and the five musicians became actors and began to debate how they should begin their tale.
The tale was, of course, “The Strange Undoing of Prudencia Hart,” an enchanting little concoction of Scottish folklore, modern humor and music. It was “an absolute smash,” as they say, in Scotland last year, and the National Theatre of Scotland is now sending their actors on a worldwide tour. The interesting thing is, as far as I understand, they’re only performing this in pubs… The story itself takes place in a pub and, like many bizarre and unexpected stories, is best told in a setting where no joke is too crass, no tale too tall and no glass left empty.
As the actors introduced their tale they assimilated themselves into the crowd, which gave me the feeling they were a group of friends who had drank enough to decide it would be a good idea to tell their long, crazy story to anyone who would listen. But unlike typical bar banter, they proceeded to sing, dance, play instruments, and make clever use of props, which made for a unique blending of theater and interactive storytelling.
I’ll give a brief rundown of the plot: a far-too-proper academic named Prudencia attends a conference in Kelso (a Scottish/English border town). Disheartened by her colleagues’ flippant reactions to her love of traditional ballads, she leaves to find a snowstorm has buried her car and made it impossible to leave town before morning. She seeks refuge in a nearby pub with a classmate whom she finds repulsive, forced to endure his snobby cleverness and the droll live music coming from the open mic stage. It devolves into a belligerent karaoke scene where, at one point, Prudencia is asked to sing her own song… but what is it? She has to go through hell to discover it, and really, you’d just have to see this performance to understand her journey and witness her discovery.
All of the above – and what happened after – was told mostly in rhymed couplets, with the actors occasionally simulating the more ambitious parts (riding a motorcycle, entering and exiting different dimensions, umm… etc.), and the creativity was – I can’t think of a more appropriate word – delightful. They even found creative ways to involve the audience: at one point everyone was encouraged to rip up their napkins and throw the shreds into the air to resemble snowing, and most people had to, at some point, abruptly move their glasses out of the way for an actor to perform atop their table. During a scene involving a group of drunk friends recalling a time they were even more drunk, I witnessed a poor fellow in front of me receive and impromptu lap dance from two of the actors (a female in front, a male behind).
Being a part of the audience for this performance required some degree of surrender. Absolutely worth it, in my opinion (although I would have required more than my usual two pints of Ypsi Gypsi to be as good of a sport as the poor lap dance victim).
The tale took it turns, from light-hearted to borderline inappropriate (saved by a strong element of fun) to supernatural, mysterious, and often quite dark. I found myself caught off guard by unexpected pop culture references and jokes specific to America – sometimes, even, specific to Michigan and Corner Brewery. The whole concept of this performance would look impossible to pull off on paper, but these five actors had charm and talent to spare. More than anything I’ve seen, this experience exposed the power of creative variation in bringing a story to life without the assistance of screens, special effects, speakers, stages, what have you… It was mostly just the actors, and every minute was compelling.
There was a string of these performances scheduled at Corner Brewery (January 8-13) and I heard they’ve been sold out for a while, which makes a lot of sense now that I’ve experienced it. For a fighting chance at discovering some stray tickets, visit ums.org. This was a truly unique thing to be a part of, and needless to say the best story I’ve ever heard at a bar.