A Legend of Sleepy Hollow, by Mary Jane Hansen, inspired by the writings of Washington Irving. Directed by Patricia Di Benedetto Snyder.
Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman
"...a man of paltry means, and petty mysteries..."
The New York State Theatre Institute has begun its 35th season with a perfectly marvelous Halloween-inflected world premiere based on an American classic by our countryís first successful writer of fiction, Washington Irving. Set primarily in the North Tarrytown hamlet of Sleepy Hollow, it is a follow-up to the story Irving wrote, employing many of the elements of that tale, but involving other historical figures such as Aaron Burr and Leonora Sansay, known as Clara, a woman whose published accounts of the slaughter of Frenchmen in Haiti had made her famous in 1809, a few years before the time of this new play.
It is 1815 and Irving is en route to England. Already a well-known author, renowned as Diedrich Knickerbocker, for his "A History of New York" published in 1809, he recounts for us a tale of his visit in the previous year, to the Westchester village of Sleepy Hollow with Burr and Clara, to report on the trial of Abraham "Brom Bones" Van Brunt, the husband of one Katrina Van Tassel, for the murder of Ichabod Crane whose headless remains have been uncovered in the woods outside of town. What happens to Irving during his four days in Sleepy Hollow makes up the majority of the story told in this new play.
May Jane Hansen has done a wonderful job creating this new work. The writing is intelligent, informative and engaging. She builds suspense like an Agatha Christie, writes character dialogue like an accomplished playwright. She has the advantage of being a member of this company of resident actors and of writing for them. She uses their best qualities in creating the characters they play. She also plays the role of Clara and, in doing so, creates a marvelous woman, intriguing and sensual and intelligent. All of her characters, in fact, share those qualities. From the outset they are people who interest us, people we want to get to know.
Even the sketchy characters, like Crane himself, attract our attention. Dead for nearly 25 years by the time of this play (1814) his few mimed scenes have a grace and a visual impact. As played by John McGuire he is much less a joke than in the classic Disney presentation, and much more a man who could have been a rival of Brom Bones for the hand of Katrina.
David Girard plays Irving with a verbal fortitude and a stylish manner and makes him a very real person indeed. It is easy to understand Irvingís haunted character watching Girard play him. He absorbs light. He contains it, in a way, and no matter what else may be happening on stage, it is Irving who attracts our attention. While this is not his story, when he is on the stage he is at the center of our attention.
This in spite of both Hansenís sexually charged relationship with Burr, played with an almost eerie reality by David Bunce or Bromís overwhelming presence in the hands of David Tass Rodriguez. Bunce has developed Burr into a man whose manifest destinies as politician, lawyer, vice-President, traitor and icon swim together in every gesture and word. When he moves or speaks he seemingly demands respect. Together with his two co-stars Hansen and Girard, he serves as the epicenter of the tale.
Rodriguez is a large man. His physical appearance is a dominant one and he overwhelms with it. The character of Brom, as he plays it, is just short of characterization, but has a reality that explains instantly the reason behind his characterís prosecution by Peter Jansen, very nicely played by Ron Komora.
Sharon Rafferty is a lovely Margriet, Bromís daughter. Not quite a romantic interest for Irving, she is nevertheless an intriguing extension of her mother, Katrina Van Tassel. John Romeo as the barkeep, Brouwer, does a fine job with his role as do so many of the NYSTI players. An especial bow to Carole Edie Smith whose handling of the minor, but vocal, character of Mrs. Martling was delicious.
This is a large cast show (29 actors), bigger than many musicals, and each and every one of the players is to be congratulated on their appearance in this play.
The fourth special character in this show, however, is unseen and only heard. That is Will Severin, whose original music for this show adds so much to its sensibility and its force. He underscores with themes that are magical at times.
The set by Duke Durfee is delightful and the costumes by Brent Griffin are perfect. So is the lighting designed by John McLain, one of his best shows for NYSTI.
Director Patricia Di Benedetto Snyder has woven all of these elements into a brilliant, and sometimes shocking, quilt. She warms the theater with it, chills her audience as she draws it back and allows the visual elements of the play to tell their own tale.
Donít let this haunted time of year go by without a visit to Washington Irvingís world. It would be a shame to let so original and intriguing a piece leave the neighborhood without you warming your hands at its fires.
Girard, Romeo McGuire, Hansen, Bunce; ALL PHOTOS: Joe Schuyler
David Girard (r) as Washington Irving
David Bunce (c) as Aaron Burr
A Legend of Sleepy Hollow plays through October 30 at Russell Sage College in the Schacht Fine Arts Centre in Troy, New York. Tickets range from $10 to $20 and may be booked by calling the box office at 518-274-3256.