Just outside New York City lies Sleepy Hollow, the muse of Washington Irving’s short story about a sleepy town bewitched by a headless horseman who wanders the woods to chop off people’s heads. Locally, the cast of Open Stage dramatizes several spine-tingling stories within “Tales from Sleepy Hollow,” as adapted by Harrisburg’s own Sammi Leigh Melville.
Straight off one of Sleepy Hollow Cemetery’s headstones is Madame Van Tassel [Francesca Amendolia], a haunted woman whose sixth sense and intensity in her eyes feel palpable. We meet her around a glowing, crackling campfire, minus the unwelcoming characteristic of always blowing smoke in one direction (usually mine.) One by one, people join her around the fire to warm themselves. They stay a while, and then they “must leave and not be late,” with their comings and goings strangely dictated by Madame Van Tassel. She remains the constant around the fire, as if she is the gatekeeper to hell.
Like many campfire gatherings, everyone huddled together takes turns telling stories, one-upping each other with each recount. We hear four short stories: “Andre’s Tale,” “Eleanor’s Tale,” “Jacob’s Tale,” and “Madame’s Tale.”
The plots of the local folk tales are at the “everyman” level, easy to grasp legends to tell in the dark—ideal for a babysitting aunt to tell her niece and nephew in a living room fort with a flashlight to her chin, just before sending the little cherubs home. (Seriously, with a PG-rating, use your best judgment for your littles and viewers with PTSD.)
The straightforward, uncomplicated plots allow the more robust special effects to come to the forefront. If you were sitting on a log around Madame Van Tassel’s campfire, you would probably stare into the flames while imagining all the specters haunting your immediate surroundings, and not much more. But Open Stage’s backstage artists took risks. They twisted a combination of special effects with their own gravitational stage presence to birth ambient settings as additional characters coming to life.
“Settings” in that last sentence is intentionally plural. In “Andre’s Tale,” Andre [Nick Wasileski] zaps viewers into a documentary-style telling that looks straight out of the History Channel, complete with its own historian seated on antique furniture. “Eleanora’s Tale” is told more plainly [Rebekah Krumenacker] using paper dolls [by Gabriella DeCarli], like a suspenseful South Park without Cartman’s potty mouth. Jacob’s [Josh Miccio’s] portrayal of “Jacob’s Tale” was shot like a silent movie, complete with sepia film jumping tracks in a staccato manner. “Madame’s Tale” unleashes the Headless Horseman [Brad Barkdoll] through a trove of shadow puppets [by Karen Ruch], like being inside a rice paper zoopraxiscope.
The foreboding music [by Jonathan Zeppa] and cinematography [by Phillip Mann] interlaces throughout all the stories, setting the mood with black-and-white close-ups of shadowy figures, like crawling insects and vines choking trees.
Side note: not one masked actor. Directors Phillip Mann and Matthew Golden arranged the shots so that the actors were filmed individually and close up as they head-hop narrated, giving the illusion of the storytellers sitting in a semi-circle. This brilliant decision kept viewers undistracted from the action, and it kept all involved appropriately social distanced.
Mask or no mask, watching this play evokes that tingly childhood Halloween feeling—back when we collectively bobbed for apples, wore politically incorrect costumes, ate homemade popcorn balls out of our candy bags, and probably didn’t think twice about any of it. If you like haunted local folklore and scary stories to tell in the dark, then don’t miss this play.
“Tales from Sleepy Hollow” runs on weekends Feb. 12 to 28. Visit www.openstagehbg.com for details about tickets and watch parties through Open Stage’s online streaming program on YouTube and Facebook.
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