Synetic’s Sleepy Hollow takes no cues from Disney’s version or even the 1999 remake by Tim Burton, which saw the tale go darker and deeper. It is far better—a richer, more provocative tale that blurs the line between good and evil and gives dimension and nuance to both Ichabod Crane and his supernatural nemesis, the Headless Horseman.
From Washington Irving’s 1820 short story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” Sleepy Hollow is comprised of seven wordless interludes—Synetic’s specialty—opening on a dark day wherein Brom (Justin J. Bell) sits alone in a murky forest beside a wounded horse (Maryam Najafzada) contemplating his next move, which is to end the beast’s misery. This is Colonial America. A time of war. No decision is easy. As he flees the forest, the spirit of the horse rises from its lifeless body and, upon seeing its master’s own listless form, dances a sort of resurrection ballet until the former Hessian soldier is reanimated, sans head. The Headless Horseman (Scott S. Turner) is born and, along with it, his vengeance.
Back in town, Brom joins his friends Van Tassel (Thomas Beheler), Van Ripper (Jordan Clark Halsey), and the indelible Ichabod Crane (Vato Tsikurishvili) at a tavern, where there is dancing, drinking, and courting as he and Crane vie for the hand of red-haired Katrina Van Tassel (Jesse McLean). In the origin story, Crane is a lanky, nervous, and bookish schoolmaster who loses Katrina to Brom—the local hero and, let’s face it, the local bully who likely conjured the Horseman as a prank to run Crane off.
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Here, Crane is the local hero. The local bully. A brutish rogue. The creator of Sleepy Hollow’s most feared resident, who is very real and very terrifying and very justified in both his anguish and anger. He wins Katrina’s hand, too, and then all hell breaks loose as the Horseman decapitates Crane’s mates, one by one.
That Crane is the villain becomes apparent in “Flashback” where both he and Brom regale Katrina with the truth of the Horseman’s demise. Tsikurishvili—with his large, muscular frame, sharp jawline, and dark eyes—cuts a menacing Crane perfectly. He’s as enigmatic as the Horseman.
Finally, Synetic expands into American literature, and it feels fitting to start with America’s first ghost story. Sleepy Hollow director Paata Tsikurishvili
The Horseman is, and really always has been, a tragic figure in death who spends nights as a specter, torturing humans. Synetic explores that by showing his extreme sadness, as he dances with a slate of disembodied heads in the “The Horseman’s Loneliness” and fleshing out his backstory. The final moments before his death are both gruesome and somber, as he connects with Brom. War is one thing. To be human is another. They don’t always jive, yet the beauty in the meeting between the Horseman and Brom is spectacular and tender. Very human. And, then immediately destroyed.
Turner, as the crazed walking dead Headless Horsement has some serious athletic prowess, running for long stretches at breakneck speed. His urgency—except when he slows to savor a kill—and heartbreak are palpable.
The other big liberty Synetic takes is to give a spirit, and personality, to the horse. To say it is a new character is a bit of stretch; the horse has always been an integral part of the mythology, but Synetic gives the creature substance and depth. She is a loving companion to the Horseman, entangled with him in death just as much as she was united with him in life on the battlefield. Najafzada has the best dances—part ballet, prancing filly, and when she takes on her full form, which is a fusion of puppetry, dance, movement, and fog. It theatre is at its finest and a sight worth seeing. Glorious.
All seven interludes are beautiful in their own right, with music to match—which is often resonant and frenetic simultaneously—though the “Final Battle” seemed a tad too long for me.
The occasional appearance of a headless musician (Konstantine Lortkipanidze, who is also the composer), looking more like the Horseman from yore, strikes a creepy chord (literally and figuratively) as he pounds out tunes of pain on a piano growing from out of the overturned stump of a downed tree. The stump, with its tentacled roots, looks almost like the living dead as well. All around, it’s dark set and seems a bit murderous. The trees, themselves, give life to the macabre, but they do obscure the sightline of important set elements, like the piano, for a few seats. Say, first row, on the left, 3rdseat. Maybe some others. I’m glad I moved.
For Sleepy Hollow, Synetic has upped the gothic, giving it the facelift I never knew it needed. It’s the perfect Fall fare for anyone who loves All Hallow’s Eve or even just a good old-fashioned American scary story.
Sleepy Hollow . Adapted by Nathan Weinberger from Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” . Directed by Paata Tsikurishvili. Choreographed by Irina Tsikurishvili. Featuring Vato Tsikurishvili, Jesse McLean, Scott S. Turner, Justin J. Bell, Maryam Najafzada, Thomas Beheler, Jordan Clark Halsey, Anne Flowers, Megan Khaziran, Matt R. Stover, Scean Aaron, Katherine Cardenas-Cruz, and Konstantine Lortkipanidze. Production: Tori Bertocci, Assistant Director; Konstantine Lortkipanidze, Resident Composer and Sound Designer; Brian S. Allard, Lighting Designer; Phil Charlwood, Scenic Designer and Technical Director; Erik Teague, Costume Designer; Phill Giggey Sr., Production Manager; Alex Keen, Master Electrician; Re Teague, Draper; Thomas Sowers, Audio Engineer; Tony Ritchie, Chris Foote, and Time Grant, Carpenters; and Tess Wagner, Assistant Stage Manager. Stage Managed by Marley Giggey. Reviewed by Kelly McCorkendale.