Just after the curtain figuratively dropped at Lexington Children's Theatre's opening performance of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, a young boy turned to his mother and said, "It wasn't very scary."
No, it wasn't very scary, but this Katherine Schultz-Miller stage adaptation of Washington Irving's famously haunted short story is still a thriller, though of a more buoyant variety than typical theatrical Halloween fare. Rather than taking an overtly dark and gothic path (think of Tim Burton's movie of the same name), director Vivian Snipes takes a gentler, more sophisticated route that is part period piece, part comedy — elements that generally compliment but occasionally eclipse the show's tell-tale spookiness.
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Think of it as Halloween Light.
Set in 1795, this classic American tale centers on the arrival of teacher Ichabod Crane (Adam Montague) to the ghost-ridden, quiet Dutch town of Tarry Town, New York, in the small glen of Sleepy Hollow. Lean, lanky, and superstitious, Crane falls for the town's rich farmer's only daughter, Katrina Van Tassel (Kristen Smiley), but ghostly events soon threaten the success of his courtship. One particular haunting particularly disturbs Crane: the headless horseman that haunts the covered bridge.
The bulk of the play consists of light, romantic foibles, with Crane and the big and burly Abraham "Brom Bones" Van Brunt (Brian Gray) comically attempting to one-up each other in their clumsy pursuit of the same woman. Here actors Montague and Gray have a charming rapport and Smiley is sufficiently both pleasant and petty. A scene in which Crane is giving himself a romantic pep talk in an imaginary mirror garnered a round of hearty chuckles, namely because Gray was identically mimicking Crane's every move.
The three-person cast also deserves praise for mastering some of LCT's signature moves — quick and convincing character changes and complex, creative mastery of versatile stage elements. For instance, two-dimensional life-size figures carved out of wood represent townspeople, with whom the actors vibrantly interact, moving them swiftly around the stage to drive the action forward. Gracefully swirling big wooden characters around the stage for nearly an hour is likely much more difficult than the actors make it appear.
Another nice touch is that the flip side of the figurines are painted to blend in with the stage's wooded, scenic background. When the audience views this side, it suggests a ghostly figure of a human outline is lurking in the forest, underscoring the trick of the eyes that the midnight woods can play on you.
Perhaps the most satisfying design element of the show is the subtle, cohesive inclusion of handwritten script within both the scenic and costume design. In the program notes, Snipes, the director, alludes to the magic and potency of words, both of which are literally woven into the fabric of the show. If you look closely, you can see that Kiersten E. Moore's sylvan set design is formed from the shape of curly, inky words that blend beautifully with Lindsay Schmeling's costume design. Knowing the professionalism of LCT, I would guess that the script is probably drawn from Irving's original copy of the story, or something with similar period-correct authenticity. Either way, the faded script draws you inside the literal and figurative rewards of reading. A few consistent period-appropriate speech affections on the part of the cast also emphasize how the particulars of language can shape the tone and rhythm of a story.
When it comes to bringing the scary, it would've been nice to see a more mood-driven lighting design by Tim Hood and Carolyn Voss. The bells and whistles that accompany the show's climax, the entrance of the dreaded headless horseman, is saturated in spooky lighting and sound effects, but there could've been more suspense built in on the front end of the show.
In the end, we learn the true identity of the headless horseman, a discovery that is as much trick as treat.