BLUFFDALE — There is so much that is inherently theatrical about Halloween. It’s a great excuse for everyone to dress up in costume, pretend to be someone else, and show off their creativity. Because these are things that theatre people often love to do, it’s no surprise that there are a lot of theatrical productions in Utah every October. Having seen three other Halloween-related productions this year, I thought that I had a pretty good grasp on what Utah theaters do to celebrate the season. I was pleasantly surprised, though, when the ticket and concessions staff and some of the tech crew for Bluffdale Arts Advisory Board’s Legends of Sleepy Hollow were dressed in Halloween costumes and had the entrance to the theater festively decorated. It was clear that these people loved Halloween and that this passion would drive every aspect of my experience during the evening.
Written by Mahonri Stewart, Legends of Sleepy Hollow is an adaptation of the famous short story by American writer Washington Irving. In this tale, local schoolmaster Ichabod Crane (Frans Lambrechtsen) is a superstitious man trying to woo Katrina Van Tassel (Mikayla Gogan), one of the town’s eligible young ladies and the only heir to a large agricultural fortune. His competition is Brom Bones (Brett Turner), a man who seems to be everything Ichabod isn’t: muscular, fearless, and dashing. Interwoven through this main story are glimpses of the folk beliefs of the denizens of rural New York just after the Revolutionary War.
Kristen Hickman directed this production with a careful eye for the actions and motivations of the female characters, which I appreciated. Most of the female characters are written fairly flatly, but Hickman gave her performers stage business and blocking that emphasized the individuality of the women of the town. Hickman also crafted an excellent party scene (perhaps the most visually interesting scene of the play), which I found to be a nice contrast to most of the other scenes in the play. Finally, Hickman ensured that the penultimate scene—between Solomon Wagner (played by Tanner Garner) and Katrina Van Tassel—was completely full of tension and spookiness.
I also appreciated the efforts of the cast of Legends of Sleepy Hollow, all of whom seemed to have a genuine affection for their characters and the story they were telling. Lambrechtsen’s performance as Ichabod Crane was different from other portrayals I have seen in the past. As played by Lambrechtsen, Ichabod is a man trying to be more refined and sophisticated than he really is—a pseudo-dandy. When Ichabod first flirted with Katrina, he seemed self-absorbed and yet, also, somehow endearing in his naivety. Ashley Gephart and Shaunti Turner also played two loveable characters, Gertrude and Guinevere Goulosh, two immigrant sisters. Their perfect accents and sibling rivalry always brought a smile to my face. Finally, Melanie Turner was honest and touching as Iris, a middle-aged spinster in the town who was more level-headed and wise than most of the other characters in the town.
Maybe it’s because I have no visually artistic talents, but Legends of Sleepy Hollow was another in a long list of arts council productions that impressed me with the high quality of their visual elements. Laura Garner‘s costume designs appeared to be authentic to the time period of the play (the 1790′s). More importantly, I believed that each of these characters would choose those clothes to wear, which is an excellent sign that the costumer understands the relationship between costume and character. For example, Ichabod’s costume, with its long coat and tri-corner hat, was appropriate for the character and was distinguished without being inappropriately flashy. The set (designed by Kristen Hickman and Elizabeth Hansen) consisted of a few small pieces of furniture and some outdoor scenic elements. My favorites were the fences (decorated with festival autumn leaves) and the picnic set, which was extremely convincing as a small knoll with a tree that had lost almost all of its leaves. Finally, the lighting (designed by Diane Kelly) was spooky in the scene with the Headless Horseman.
Now after I have heaped all this praise on the performers and the creative team, I have to explain why I hesitate to recommend this show to readers: the script. In spite of the talents of the artists, they just couldn’t overcome the inherent limitations of the script. I have reviewed productions of plays written by Mahonri Stewart two other times, and my criticisms of his writing of Legends of Sleepy Hollow are all issues that I have raised before. Like those other scripts, there are a lot of story elements wedged into the story, and many characters seem unnecessary. (Instead of 14 characters, this same story could have been told with about 6.) Having superfluous characters makes a story unfocused and inhibits meaningful character development, even for essential characters. This also makes Legends of Sleepy Hollow much longer than the play needs to be. Finally, Legends of Sleepy Hollow is wordy and verbose. I think that Stewart strives for a literary quality in his plays, but there’s a fine line between being literary (a la Jane Austen, William Shakespeare, or Oscar Wilde) and being longwinded. I know some Utah-based playwrights who can create literary scripts, but it’s a careful skill that few have.
But, like my previous two reviews of Stewart’s work, I do find some fine moments in Legends of Sleepy Hollow. His original subplot about Solomon Wagner is compelling, and some of the humor in the script evokes genuine chuckles. But it’s extremely hard for me to ignore the tedious stream of monologues between every scene, which rarely advanced the story or developed characters (although a few covered scene changes, so they weren’t totally purposeless). It’s also hard for me to ignore the many actions that don’t make sense. (Why doesn’t Brom Bones and his gang pummel Ichabod Crane the first time they meet? Why does Ichabod instantly fall in love with Katrina after one fleeting glance? Why does Katrina’s father prefer Ichabod for a son-in-law instead of Brom?) On the other hand, one cannot deny that Stewart has his fans in Utah. Their opinions are just as valid as mine, and I recognize that there are pleasing aspects of all of his plays that I’ve reviewed—especially this one.
However, the actors and creative staff at the Bluffdale Arts Advisory Board have created the best work that I think can be reasonably expected from an arts council working with an inherently flawed script. Nevertheless, the show is certainly in keeping with the spirit of Halloween and their love for the performing arts. The passion that infused every aspect of the evening reminded me why I love amateur arts councils productions in Utah so much.