Director Jon Ferguson and playwright John Heimbuch debuted their adaptation of Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” in October 2010 at the Jon Hassler Theater in Plainview, Minn. Out there on the barren plains they wove an intensely atmospheric spell, and they’ve now bottled their magic and brought it to the big city, where the production is being revived at the Red Eye Theater under the auspices of Walking Shadow Theatre Company.
Ferguson and Heimbuch, who have collaborated on multiple acclaimed shows, make a good pair. Ferguson is one of the Twin Cities’ best directors of collaboratively devised theater, and Heimbuch helps give his productions the strong backbone of a plot. Heimbuch, on the other hand, is an incredibly ambitious writer who can err on the side of overplotting; Ferguson makes sure his characters have room to breathe.
The air these characters are breathing is that of Tarry Town, New York, circa 1790—a town still cowering from the horrors of the Revolutionary War’s guerrilla combat, its residents constantly trading stories of the fallen soldiers’ restless ghosts. Newly hired schoolmaster Ichabod Crane (a perfectly poised Ryan Lear) arrives high on his horse, the Yalie prig planning to scoop local beauty Katrina Van Tassel (Joanna Harmon)—and her family’s farm—into his arms.
Ichabod’s rival for Katrina’s affections is Brom Bones (Brant Miller, always best when playing mean), who designs to repel the easily spooked schoolmaster with tales of the Headless Horseman, a German mercenary who lost his head in the Revolution and now haunts the hills looking to claim a replacement.
This production is a minor masterpiece of onstage storytelling, with the townsfolk delightedly devising ways to stage their horrific tales with the aid of a few simple props: sticks, stacks of books, a couple of curtains and a high fence that holds several surprises. Erica Zaffarano’s set design is lifted beautifully intact from the Plainview production; it was halfway through the play before I stopped to think, where did they get all those piles of autumn leaves?
"The Legend of Sleepy Hollow" is one of the most absorbing, entertaining shows you’re likely to see on stage this season. You’ll forget it’s not Halloween as Walking Shadow’s clever crew draw you into this classic story of a cocky academic whose book learning can’t save him from falling victim to his own superstitions. You’ll laugh with him, you’ll laugh at him, and then, as the tension mounts and the Hessian gallops, you might find yourself getting a little spooked too.