In the spirit of early American Gothic folklore, Theatre Harrisburg opens its 97th season with David Ramón Zayas’ adaptation of Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” a slow-burn suspense—a tall campfire tale made all the spookier because of its real New England setting along the Hudson River.
Sleepy Hollow’s superstitious townspeople personify the village as its own character in the story, an old-fashioned place where people co-exist uneasily with the spirit world. Set in 1790, Sleepy Hollow is a hidden place on the way to nowhere else. Travelers can’t get there by accident, and they tend not to leave, even when they die.
This production opens with mood-setting elements so thoroughly eerie, slowly unfolding and seeping their way into your bones: rolling fog, howling wind, shifty up-lighting on bare trees, hints of sage tingeing the air, and oddly synchronized hooded figures (Witte Wievens, Julia Toyer, Tessa Eberlein, and Francesca Amendolia) singing hauntingly. By the time we hear The Elder (Michael Greenwald), we suspect his voice is too soothing to be a reliable narrator.
The audience is thrust into Sleepy Hollow through Ichabod Crane’s (Trystin Bailey) eyes, walking in unfamiliar woods to his new post as the town’s schoolmaster. Everyone Ichabod meets along his journey and during his tenure fills his impressionable mind with other haunted legends, further infusing the time and place with menace.
To bring those stories to life, Widow Knickerbocker (Amber Mann), Baltus Van Tassel (Jeff Wasileski), Mrs. Van Tassel (Lisa Leone Dickerson), and Mrs. Van Ripper (Gerren Wagner) use unnervingly skilled storytelling, complete with scant lighting cutting through mist and shadows just dim enough for our eyes to strain at faceless and headless figures appearing throughout the theater from all sides. Nervous imagination fills in what we can’t see, questioning what we believe.
There’s only one non-believer in Sleepy Hollow: Diedrich Knickerbocker (Douglas Wann), a sensible young student who is saving money to leave someday. When he goes missing, everyone except Crane is positive that the spirit of a Hessian soldier, the Headless Horseman, took the boy. With the boy gone—however he went—Crane’s only lifeline to sensibility left Sleepy Hollow with him.
Bailey perfectly interprets the increasingly vulnerable Crane as skittish, sweaty and swoony over his voice student, Katrina Van Tassel (Laila Keadan). Keadan flirts and sings sweetly while a volatile love triangle forms with the brutish Abraham “Brom Bones” Van Brunt (Brennen Dickerson), who shines in retelling his dramatic account of his first-hand meeting with the Headless Horseman.
It’s at the Van Tassel’s annual harvest party where the audience, as invited guests, are treated to period parlor games, synchronized dancing, and a heated brawl in the Horseman’s Woods between Bailey and Brennen Dickerson. Who won? What happened to our hero Ichabod Crane? Those answers weave themselves in to the tapestry of local legend.
Why has “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” endured over the centuries? Director Jeff Luttermoser suggests that we have made a larger connection with the story as part of the human experience.
“At some point, we all become stories that other people tell, and those stories are the ghosts of us…our beliefs and superstitions, our memories of those we loved and lost, and the tales we pass down within our families and communities,” he said.
With no one to fact-check in 1790, we may never know whether Washington Irving employed the old writer’s trick of copying names from tombstones to make them sound authentic, or how true to the story (or to actual life) his characters were. Even when written down, folklore grows with every interpretation.
After the curtain fell, my mother (and major character in my own story) leaned over to me and said, “Now we have to go outside to our cars.” Her eyes widened. “In the dark.”
I did. Quickly. Then I sped my car home to jump under my covers.
“The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” runs through Sept. 18 at the Krevsky Center, 513 Hurlock St., Harrisburg. For more information on show times and tickets, visit www.theatreharrisburg.com.
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