On a stage adrift with withered leaves, against a backdrop of skeletal trees, the attenuated and ghastly shapes of a horse and headless rider appear, galloping after their hapless victim. This image appears so suddenly and so surprisingly at the beginning of Walking Shadow Theatre Company’s newest production, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” that it signals immediately that the audience is in for a less than typical retelling of this venerable Washington Irving tale.
Playwright John Heimbuch and director Jon Ferguson infuse this work with a lively blend of gothic terror and tongue-in-cheek humor that ably captures Irving’s story and demonstrates why it remains so compelling. The image of the horse and rider, created out of nothing more than the scraps of wood, cloth and debris that litter the stage, becomes a tangible symbol for the way in which the mind can create fear out of half-glimpsed shadows, a creaking door and an overactive imagination.
A heightened sense of unreality combined with a theatrically presentational style characterizes the aptly off-balance and uneasy world of this play.
The Sleepy Hollow conjured here has become such a touchstone for scary legends and stories that residents are startled each time they encounter one another. When schoolteacher Ichabod Crane, imbued by Ryan Lear with a hilariously unconscious naiveté and prissy sense of self-worth, arrives in this insular enclave, his Connecticut antecedents are viewed with suspicion. His simpering sense of superiority over his “rustic patrons” immediately sets him up for a fall.
Katrina Van Tassel, played with wide-eyed charm by Joanna Harmon, is the catch of the town as the daughter of its wealthiest farmer, and she coyly plays her suitors off one another. Brant Miller’s Brom Bones is a larger-than-life bully as Ichabod’s rival, with a boisterous stage presence and an edge of comic menace. An ensemble of hollow-eyed and tousled townspeople watch with glee as the love triangle unfolds.
Some of the best moments of this production come from the work of this ensemble, carefully choreographed by Ferguson with an almost balletic sense to create fluid stage pictures punctuated by hilarious cameo bits of business. Ichabod’s classroom, with his students perched on piles of books and mocking him in concert each time he turns his back, is a particularly well-executed piece of choral magic.
A finely tuned physicality, combined with a clever balance of humor, horror and designer Erica Zaffarano’s inventive scenic elements, give this production a rare zest. Walking Shadow is to be commended for creating such a compelling piece of theater.
Lisa Brock writes about theater.