The Legend of Sleepy Hollow

The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
Directed by Gayle Stahlhuth
East Lynne Theater Company
Cape May, New Jersey
Through August 31, 2013

Washington Irving's venerable ghost story, first published in 1820, contains virtually no dialog, but abundant pondered ambiguities -- so it is up to the writer and director who is adapting the story in a performance medium to "dramatize" it. Many a writer has tried, in film, animation, stage, and musical versions. Playwright James Rana has taken up the challenge and provided the freshest of takes on The Legend of Sleepy Hollow in a delightful production mounted by East Lynne Theater Company in picturesque Cape May, New Jersey. Deftly directed by Gayle Stahlhuth, the company's artistic director, and with a talented cast of seasoned professionals, the hour and twenty minute presentation breezes by on the wings of disarming charm and dramatic authenticity.

The story (for those pupils who avoided "required reading") is simple. In 1792, Ichabod Crane, a Connecticut native, arrives in Tarry Town, New York, to serve as the new local school master. Initially, the Dutch town folk aren’t too keen on this English outsider, but he begins to get along with the locals -- or so it seems. Crane is highly interested in what we would now call "the occult," and is excited to hear a local legend about a headless horseman who roams a nearby hamlet called Sleepy Hollow, searching for his misplaced head. Crane is also infatuated with the notion of wooing Katrina Van Tassel, daughter of a rich farmer (with hopes of ultimately becoming the next master of the manor). Crane is thwarted by Brom Bones, who considers Katrina as promised to him since childhood, and who concocts a number of pranks, with ghostly overtones, to scare away the superstitious Crane. While traveling to his lodging after a harvest festival at Katrina's family home, in a state of dejection over Katrina, Crane has a terrifying encounter with what appears to be the headless horseman, and then Crane simply disappears. Did Crane really disappear? Was the headless horseman a ghost or an elaborate prank perpetrated by Brom? Later on a passerby tells of Crane being alive and quite a hit as a lecturer in Manhattan. Was that tale a hoax as well?

Irving's story is so well known that it becomes the obligation of any new production to infuse the legend with something new. What this particular production brings is a refreshingly straightforward telling, with fine authentic characterizations, spirited ensemble playing, and a new slant here and there. For example: the character of Ichabod Crane, as sympathetically played by Matt Baxter Luceno, is an essentially well-meaning outsider who is subjected to xenophobic prejudice. The other characters, although they are "types," are never allowed to descend to total caricature. What could have easily slipped into cliché is checked by the skill of this able ensemble.

Each of the play's six actors contributes something special to it. Matt Baxter Luceno, appealingly elegant and courtly as Ichabod Crane (on his good behavior), arouses our sympathy as the harassed and terrified outsider. In addition, Mr. Luceno possesses a wonderful singing voice. This is well displayed in scenes in which -- as a pretext for wooing her -- he teaches Katrina to sing. Elisa Pupko as Katrina is superlative as the sweet Dutch farmer's daughter, as well as other characters; Ms. Pupko gets to show that she too is an accomplished singer. Suzanne Dawson shows her mettle as a character actor, and as such is up there with the best of them as the village gossip, housewife, etc. She plays her comic rolls to the hilt, especially when Ichabod Crane gives her a singing lesson. As Brom Bones, Justin Bennett is certainly up to the task of portraying that ultimately disagreeable character. I know actors are good when I am induced to dislike the characters they portray, and I certainly loathed Mr. Bennett's! Thomas Raniszewski plays all his multiple roles wonderfully, with a decidedly sharp contrast from when he is the proper Pastor, to later as the outlandishly awkward farmer who lends Crane a horse for his ride with the headless one. John Cameron Weber shows he is a solid and convincing actor as Katrina's father, as well as in his other roles.

Marion T. Brady's period costuming beautifully established the Dutch era backdrop of the play, and all the players appeared comfortably at ease in the attire she designed for them.

Gayle Stahlhuth's direction is so natural that it creates the illusion of looking like it just "happened." However, I suspect that a great deal of work was required to have the seamless action of the play move with such fluidity and ease.

This fine production of The Legend of Sleepy Holly is child-friendly (and certainly adult-friendly as well). It reminds me of the teleplays of early television (which can be viewed on YouTube and at the Museum of Broadcasting): A time when, with good scripts, fine actors and direction, and with only basic scenery and props, delightful and enduring works were created. - Jay Reisberg


Mr. Reisberg is a UCLA film school grad, professional singer, comedian, and bon vivant at large.

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