A sizable crowd assembled to see a free preview of “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” presented by Prime Stage Theatreat the New Hazlett Theater on Oct. 3. Something in the theater, however, was missing.
“Where’s the stage?” inquired a voice from the crowd.
“The stage,” responded Prime Stage Artistic Director Wayne Brinda, “is in your imagination.”
That unscripted exchange provided the perfect prologue for the night’s performance. The stage area was nothing more than an open space with a table and bench in the center flanked by chairs for the actors in the wings.
Without any lighting effects, costumes, music or even props, it was an experience that relied on the audience’s imagination — which gained its fuel primarily from the power of the story itself.
That story, of course, being “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow” by Washington Irving, but re-imagined by playwright F. J. Hartland. Speaking before the performance, Hartland announced that his goal was to tell the classic tale and make it relevant to today’s audiences. That sentiment was echoed by Director Mark Calla, who said he didn’t want to simply trot out a new script — he wanted a reason for a new adaptation.
Above all, the company wanted to be faithful to the source material. Though, as Hartland noted, there isn’t much dialogue in Irving’s story. The only fleshed-out character in the original is Ichabod Crane himself, leaving Hartland some license to develop the rest of the cast as he wished.
Ichabod’s character has a few added wrinkles, as well. One of the main themes the playwright wanted to explore was fear — particularly fear of the unknown. This is accomplished through a psychological approach, which often results in the audience witnessing scenes taking place inside Crane’s head.
Fear is produced in scenes outside of Crane’s head, too. Some of the most effective scenes involve no dialogue at all, especially the scene in which Ichabod rides alone through the graveyard. Even with no music or special effects, the cast was able to produce a terrifying atmosphere through a brilliant counterplay of silence and cacophony.
The finished product will be different from the preview in a numbers of ways. For one, the cast was only working on one and a half weeks of rehearsal, though it seemed they were reciting more from memory than the scripts they carried. The show will have an original score, and the set will feature the depths of Sleepy Hollow, with a tiered graveyard and scenery elements hanging all around the theater.
The preview in no way suffered from these omissions, however. Storytelling plays a large role in the play, and it was especially prominent in the preview. Reading aloud the scene changes and the special effects made the story feel more like a book being read by a fireplace in a Tarry Town cottage, which suits the original tale well.
The play is a testament to the tradition of American storytelling, which many argue started with Washington Irving, who is known as the “father of American literature.” The show runs from Oct. 30 to Nov. 7 at the New Hazlett Theatre, and calling it a fun Halloween event for the whole family is no stretch of the imagination.
The preview was part of RADical Days, an annual event with free admission to instutitions in Allegheny County funded by the county’s Regional Asset District sales tax.
For more information or to buy tickets, visit Prime Stage Theater’s website, www.primestage.com.