It Came Upon a Midnight Drear

Schoolmaster Ichabod Crane arrives in the village of Sleepy Hollow to instruct students and direct the church choir.  While there, he sets his eyes on the fortune of Baltus Van Tassel and his beautiful daughter, Katrina.  In his path lay a formidable rival and the headless ghost of a Hessian soldier.  This is The Legend of Sleepy Hollow and it is currently playing at BlueBarn Theatre.

As normalcy continues to return to the world, I’ve found myself returning to a lot of things that I did before the pandemic.  So it seems apropos that I get another chance at reviewing a version of this story.  Washington Irving’s gothic tale is one of my favorite short stories.  Both times I heard about a production of this story I had the same question, “How does one take a 20-30 minute tale and spin it into a full length production?”  The first version I saw went wide of the mark.

Ben Beck and Jill Anderson hit a dead center bullseye.

Beck and Anderson’s version of the classic ghost story is completely faithful to the original even to the point of using Irving’s own lines.  How did they expand it into a full show?  Not by adding unnecessary scenes, but by expanding Irving’s references.  When Ichabod is invited to a fall harvest at the Van Tassel’s, they do a formal invitation scene.  When they say they’re going to tell ghost stories at the party, they tell some ghost stories.  Thus, Beck and Anderson retain the story’s original intention and are able to present its full power to the public, greatly boosted by top of the line direction and acting.

Jill Anderson has taken on a very unique challenge with her direction of this production.  This is not a regular play.  Rather it blends several styles of performing.  There most assuredly is acting, but there is also puppetry, pantomime, and storytelling.  That final point is crucial because there is a difference between acting and storytelling.  Acting is presenting the truth of a character, but storytelling is exactly what it sounds like and provides a certain leeway in being a bit bigger and over the top.  Anderson effortlessly fuses the multiple styles of performing to create a gripping tale, adds some icing with her coaching of the cast, and tops it with the cherry of her staging which uses the whole theatre and I mean the WHOLE theatre.  Watch out when Ichabod starts wandering through the woods.

This show is primarily narration with the actors occasionally becoming characters (with the exception of Ichabod) to help propel the story along.  As such it eschews normal analysis, but the ensemble does excellent work in presenting the story.  Where needed, they give it humor, drama, and even chilling tension.  Each performer gets a chance to shine such as Abz Cameron’s take on the coquettish (I say shallow and manipulative) Katrina Van Tassel.  Raydell Cordell III generates some of the show’s biggest laughs as an uneducated, uncouth farmer plus Crane’s housing host, Hans Van Ripper.  Rodger Gerberding makes for a surprisingly convincing mistress as Van Tassel’s wife.  Roderick Hickman has a voice made for narration.  Theresa Sindelar provides laughs as a bratty student in Ichabod’s class and exudes authority as Baltus Van Tassel. 

Brandon Williams is a standout with his key role of Ichabod’s rival, Brom Bones.  Williams’ powerful baritone perfectly suits the athletic and confident Brom and he gives Brom that important quality of likability.  Sure, he’s a bit of a rowdy, but has “more mischief than ill-will in his composition”.  And I like how his facial expressions and snarling make clear he’d like to drive his fist into Ichabod’s beaked nose, but settles for juvenile pranks and perhaps one not quite so juvenile.

Josh Peyton is perfect as Ichabod Crane.  Peyton gets Ichabod and realizes he’s no hero.  Crane is actually a very unlikable person.  He’s smug.  He’s vain.  He’s superstitious.  He’s a craven coward.  He flaunts his education.  He ingratiates himself to the local women to share gossip and to feed his face (and he’s a gluttonous pig) and, while he may truly be smitten with Katrina, is more attracted to her father’s wealth.  Peyton embodies all of these traits and enhances them with a loose-limbed walk and dilletante voice to emphasize Crane’s reediness.

This particular show relies on its technical aspects more than most shows I’ve seen and their support is solid as an oak.  Olga Smola has composed an original score that can spook you or make you feel like you’re in a frolic and done solely with her fierce violin playing and Julia Williams’ dandy accordion work.  Sarah Rowe has designed a set of cardboard trees and fanciful overhang with a horse’s head and crescent moon suitable for a bit of storytelling and fleshed out by Craig Lee’s artistry and Amy Reiner’s properties.  Bill Kirby’s lights really pump up the story with some of my favorite moments being when Ichabod is riding through the woods alone in the deep, dark night and the final lighting effect of the Headless Horseman’s pursuit of Crane.  Jill Anderson’s knowledge of period accurate costumes is second to none as all of the characters look like they stepped out of the late 1700s with frock coats, three pointed hats, and frilled shirts.

This is a show made for the Halloween season and is a faithful rendition of one of the all-time classic gothic tales in American history.  Sellouts have already begun so grab a ticket before they’re just a wisp of a memory.

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow plays at BlueBarn Theatre through Oct 31.  Showtimes are 7:30pm Thurs-Sat and Sundays at 6pm (no show on Oct 9 and 2pm matinee on Oct 23 in lieu of 6pm show).  The show will close on Monday, Oct 31 with a 7:30pm show.  Tickets cost $37 and can be purchased by calling 402-345-1576 or visiting www.bluebarn.org. BlueBarn Theatre is located at 1106 S 10th St in Omaha, NE.

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