A sleepy telling of LEGENDS OF SLEEPY HOLLOW

Playing thru October 15, 2011

PROVO — “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” is a story that many people are familiar with, or so I thought.  When I saw Legends of Sleepy Hollow produced by Zion Theatre Company on Saturday night, there was much I didn’t recognize.

I’d grown up loving Walt Disney’s take on Washington Irving’s classic tale of the awkward, gangly, but ultimately lovable school teacher who moved into a new town filled with high ideals and goals for his pupils.  However, those days of learning were short lived, for Ichabod quickly found himself entrenched in a local tale of a decapitated specter who tormented the inhabitants of Sleepy Hollow to the point of distraction.  Ichabod met his unhappy demise on the wrong end of a hurled Jack-O-Lantern.  This powerful imagery, the massive reared up horse, saddled by a hulking figure in high boots and an overcoat with an empty collar hefting a glowing, menacing carved pumpkin has become synonymous with Halloween itself.

Owing to the indelible imprint this tale has left on our society, I was thrilled to learn that I would have the chance to go and see a play on this subject.  Furthermore, knowing that it was to be produced in one of the more ominous and tactile facilities in the valley, the Castle Outdoor Amphitheater above the Utah State Hospital in Provo, I fully expected an incredible visceral experience.  I wanted to be scared, or at least made uneasy in those spooky surroundings with such a deliciously devilish story at hand.  Sadly, I was left feeling little more than uncomfortable, and that was due to the seating, not the subject matter.

This was my first time seeing a performance at this venue and immediately upon arrival I was confused.  There were no signs, no ushers, no clear directions regarding where we were to park, or even where the ticketing entrance was.  I ended up “coming in through the back door” and had to work my way back to the front to claim my will-called tickets before staking out our seats for the evening.  If you’ve seen a show at the Castle Amphitheater, then you know that I’m using the term “seats” quite loosely.  The tiers of the theater are made up of rough-cut stones set into step in the hillside.  The audience was allowed to bring blankets to make more comfortable our accommodations, but it was difficult to find a spot devoid of a protruding knot stabbing into some part of you.  I would love to see this classic location retrofitted with seats of some form; even stadium style benches would make for a much more enjoyable viewing experience.  I feel the current seating arrangement makes it difficult, if not impossible for a large cross section of the population to participate.  Not that this particular issue has anything to do with this production, but it was certainly a big part of my evening.

Once we claimed our seating area, we settled in and awaited the beginning of the show.  The natural backdrop of a sleepy valley below, capped by a blood red sunset created the perfect feeling of angst for the audience.  There was moody, intense lead in music being pumped through the crowd and my preparation to be shocked and frightened was complete. All of that anticipation was quickly stunted by a plain-clothes man trotting to the middle of the stage and running through a series of notes for the evening.  I would have much preferred a scripted voice over, perhaps in keeping with the tenor of the topic at hand to keep us in that moment.  Finally the moment arrived and the proverbial curtain rose on the show.

The opening scene gave us the bulk of cast as an ensemble beginning the weaving of the story.  The moment the stage was lit my eyes drew in the stunning costumes.  I was taken completely by surprise at how beautifully the costumes were assembled.  They added so much credence to the piece. As I rapidly realized, there were next to zero set pieces, and so the costumes became even more vital as they were really the only visually interesting component.

The stage was lit in such a way (or the blocking was such—however you’d like to view the problem) that four of the actors were completely shielded from view.  This was a common problem throughout the evening.  Zion Theatre Company had also made the choice to perform without microphones.  For the most part, this didn’t prove an issue, aside from the two main actors who I found myself straining (and failing) to hear throughout much of the evening.

As Dana Anquoe, who played Alice Hudson, begins to lead an early scene I don’t realize the transcendent part her role will play in this telling.  By the end of the show I’ve realized that this was really her story.  Anquoe was a solid performer, though a lack of direction, I feel, led her to make a number of poor choices.  Chief among them is the fact that she spent 90% of the show clutching her abdomen with both hands.  I wished time and again that she’d have been given better direction (from director Amy Jo Henderson) and had developed more interesting stage business.  Also, in the latter part of the story, I found the voicing of her character to be quite uniform.  I would have loved to see a broader range of emotional delivery.

And now the audience was introduced to Ichabod Crane, adequately played by Shea Potter.  While his appearance doesn’t scream to me the classic characteristics that we’ve been fed regarding this man, Shea has taken on a few mannerisms that lend themselves nicely to the overall effect.  However, his character seemed a bit disjointed to me: at times a dynamic, clear and somber orator – others a screaming, sputtering, stammering school girl.  I found that the swings to these extremes were unmotivated and as such, detracted from an otherwise solid performance.

I also took issue with the script, written by Mahonri Stewart.  In his adaptation, Stewart made a number of choices that seemed confusing and utterly distracting from the thrust of the story.  Chief among my problems with this script was the fact that mixed in between nearly every scene were monologues, each offered by a different character.  These didn’t seem to advance the story in any way to me, but rather to muddy the water and weigh the pace down.  The lighting used to set these vignettes was to bathe the stage in red, and each time that lighting effect came up I found myself checking my watch.  It destroyed the continuity of the show for me.  Although, I must admit, my absolute favorite point of the night was Solomon Wagner’s chance at the monologue circuit (played by Garr Van Orden).  It was an absolutely brilliant choice.

Another glaring issue I had with the script was that it seemed to me there was no focal point; meaning I wasn’t sure if this was intended to be a romantic comedy, a drama, or horror. The mood and feel that Stewart and Henderson were aiming for were completely lost to me. I was further frustrated that there were phrases and words written into the script that can only play well when said in a certain accent.  Those accents had been abandoned, but the phrases were employed, and as such they seemed very misplaced and hokey (i.e. – “Darn Tootin” and “walloping good time”). Even worse, you could tell the actors were uncomfortable saying them.

As for Henderson’s direction, I was underwhelmed.  I noted a profound lingering flaw with the entire production, which was quite simply the complete and utter lack of interesting blocking.  The performers were left with very little to do in the way of business, which led to poor and distracting choices, pacing, clumping, and fidgeting.  In a few cases where it was apparent specific blocking had been given (the handkerchiefs particularly), it played on far too long and became monotonous.  I could feel the commitment of this cast, but it was not focused and therefore, didn’t translate to competence.

I also took great umbrage with the complete lack of any type of set dressing throughout almost all of the performance.  I understand firsthand that budgets are limited, but an artistic vision can turn trash into treasure when it comes to set design.  I felt that little to no thought was given to dressing the stage and it left a gaping artistic hole, which could have been masterfully filled with creativity.

As for the accompanying cast, Luci McNair who portrayed the chief love interest of Sleepy Hollow, Katrina Van Tassel gave an admirable, if slightly monotone performance.  She was slightly handicapped by the 40 minute ramp up to her first entrance, during which her profound beauty and captivating presence was built to Olympian heights.  Not to say that she wasn’t beautiful, however she didn’t possess that air of confidence to draw me in, as a man.  Brom Bones, the testosterone laden, ladies Man-Child, was adeptly strutted out by Joshua French.  Each time he was on stage, I found my attention drawn to his machismo and over the top antics.  He was as subtle as Ace Ventura, but it played well.  Daniel Anderson’s interpretation of the wealthy, good natured farmer and landowner, Baltus Van Tassel was perfect.  I found myself relaxing and enjoying those scenes where Anderson was prominently used.  Many of the other supporting characters were well-developed and brought nice business to the back-scenes, particularly the pair of German immigrants, who greatly enriched each scene they were in.

And now, I must address my culminating, discouraging moment of the evening.  The apex of the story, the very moment that, I daresay, the audience had all braved 2½ hours on the cold, hard seats to witness never came!  Instead of a memorable or exciting visual effect at the climax, the audience was treated to nothing more than a 1930’s radio-style sound recording.  I was so deflated when I realized the staging choices that had been made that it was honestly difficult for me to focus on the rest of the performance.  In an outdoor theater it shouldn’t have been too difficult to fashion some visual effect . I’m not out to tell people how to do their job, or to force my artistic vision on a theater company, but as an observer, I was very let down.

Overall, I feel there was definite devotion, however misguided, from the performers.  A casual observer would likely enjoy the evening.  I don’t think I would recommend a friend see this particular show, simply due to the fact that given the location and the weather you really have to commit to this viewing experience and in this case, for me, the payoff just wasn’t there.  I think that the rigid schoolmaster himself, Mr. Crane, would likely grade this production as a C-.

The Zion Theatre Company Production of Legends of Sleepy Hollow plays October 14-15 at 7:30 PM at the outdoor Castle Theater on the grounds of the Utah State Hospital (enter on Center Street, turn left where the road ends and follow the narrow, winding road to the parking area above the hospital administration building) in Provo. Tickets are $9-11. For more information, visit ziontheatrecompany.com.

L-R: Joshua French (Brom Bones) and Luci McNair (Katrina Van Tassel). Photo courtesy of Emily Drew.