It takes just under two hours to drive from the Twin Cities to the Jon Hassler Theater in southeastern Minnesota, but think of the drive as being part of the show. While The Legend of Sleepy Hollow would be a very good production anywhere you saw it, this tale of a haunted hollow in rural New York resonates among the empty cornfields in a way it wouldn’t if staged in the bustling city.
This Sleepy Hollow is directed by Jon Ferguson, and it’s his most completely successful show since the luminous You’re My Favorite Kind of Pretty. Ferguson gives John Heimbuch’s deft script—adapted from the 1820 Washington Irving story—a typically innovative production, with strong performances by a cast stacked deep with exceptional talent. As a master of mood and atmosphere, Ferguson is the perfect director to handle this material. The production feels spacious and spooky, while also being rich with the performer-driven humor that’s another Ferguson trademark. You want to be kind of creeped out at Halloween, but you also want to be surprised and amused, and this Sleepy Hollow delivers on all those counts.
|the legend of sleepy hollow, presented through november 28 at the jon hassler theater. for information and tickets ($22), see jonhasslertheater.org.|
Heimbuch’s adaptation highlights the storytelling theme of Sleepy Hollow, giving us multiple tellings of the tale of the Headless Horseman as well as other tall tales, so that poor Ichabod Crane is left in the position of Inspector Clouseau. (“I believe everything…and I believe nothing!”) There’s not a lot of narrative momentum to the script, which might frustrate some viewers more than it did me, but the production is so wonderfully watchable that I didn’t really care where the play was going.
The performances are highly stylized—as befits a legend—but Ferguson leaves ample room for the actors to insert funny and moving touches. The cast is led by the wonderful Ryan Lear as Crane, the gangly, dandyish schoolteacher of thinly-veiled appetites. As Crane’s nemesis Brom Bones, Brant Miller appropriately devours the scenery with a haughty demeanor and a majestic Colonial mullet. The outrageously beautiful Joanna Harmon displays a deft comic touch as she delicately yanks both men’s chains; and as Parson Van Houten, Anthony Sarnicki against all odds finds new comic life in the old trope of the fire-and-brimstone sermon. As for the rest of the cast, if the names Hans Hauge, Megan Hernick, Kimberly Richardson, Sara Richardson, Ashton Schneider, and Piper Sigel-Bruse don’t make you smile already, they will after you see Sleepy Hollow.
One scene after another is beautifully handled, and everything works: Ferguson has a way of deploying minimal props and gestures to maximum effect by directing the audience’s attention with text and movement rather than with bells and whistles. The central element of Erica Zaffarano’s set is a tall wooden fence, with slits through which performers can be glimpsed moving, and Ferguson uses this to build a sense of wonder and mystery. What is that back there? Did we just see what we thought we saw? When the headless rider appears, his fearsome mount springs to life from branches strewn about the stage, assembled by the performers without the audience even realizing it until suddenly…there he is, a burlap sack hiding his hideous deformity.
Adding to the production’s effect is a typically atmospheric sound design by Tim Cameron, whose original score helps to create a sense of place and mood. Lori Opsal’s costume design is also excellent, particularly her creation for Lear: a schoolteacher’s coat with outsize details and the long tails that define Crane’s character as surely as a sweaty t-shirt defines Stanley Kowalski.
All of this is fantastic, but coming from these people might have been expected. What’s most surprisingly gratifying about this show is its detailed depiction of its 1790 setting. Heimbuch preserves Irving’s precise descriptions of the location of Sleepy Hollow, the shape of the tree under which the ghoulish horseman roams, and the character of the Dutch immigrant community. The Revolutionary War took place within these characters’ memory, and whenever someone mentions the British, they spit with disgust. It’s the details that make any story convincing, and this marvelous rendition of the Great American Halloween Story sure convinced me. Don’t miss it.