REVIEW: The Legend of Sleepy Hollow (City Lit Theater)

 

The Bodiless Head That Wasn’t Dead

 

 Legend of Sleepy Hollow poster - City Lit Theater

    
City Lit Theatre presents
   
The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
   
Written by Stephen F. Murray and Brian Pastor
Based on
novel by Washington Irving
Directed by
Stephen Murray
at
City Lit Theater, 1020 W. Bryn Mawr (map)
through October 31  |  tickets: $25  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Halloween and harvest seem to go together. It’s as if, when the crops are in, the ghouls are out. The land lies fallow and that vacuum is filled by supernatural interlopers, encouraged by the lengthening nights and the coming cold. One of the most infamous is the Headless Horseman, a former Hessian soldier who, having lost his head to a cannon ball, now gallops furiously at midnight, hurling it at unwary travelers and taking them back with him to the bowels of hell.

He’s the main menace in Washington Irving’s delightful fable, “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow,” though a minor one is the thuggish Brom Bones, a bully who recalls the equally intimidating Gaston in “Beauty and the Beast.” The story’s victim, of course, is the itinerant schoolmaster Ichabod Crane, an awkward booby and suspicious as the one scholar in this hamlet of Sleepy Hollow just outside Tarrytown. Poor gangly Ichabod seems even more ridiculous when he falls for the heiress Katrina Van Tussel, only to fall victim to both Bones and his horse Daredevil, as well as the fearsome Horseman. His undoing follows an ill-fated fall quilting bee that goes terribly wrong when Ichabod clumsily courts the cold Katrina (a name to reckon with). Riding his not so trusty speed Gunpowder, Ichabod is launched into a race from hell or to it, it isn’t quite clear.

This is the engaging plot of a Halloween classic that in a mere hour City Lit brings to full life with an impassioned solo performance by co-adaptor Brian Pastor. His accuracy in portraying these Dutch caricatures from New Amsterdam is matched by his ability to paint stirring word pictures of the haunted glens and ponds, especially as feared by the locals.

Matthew Bivins’ original folk score and the live Foley sound effects (as if for a radio broadcast) by Shawn Goudie add considerable texture to Pastor’s talespinning prowess. Props count a lot here, like a bowling ball suggesting the cannon ball that shortened the Hessian wraith, a doll house to suggest the Van Tussel’s gentry status, and percussive instruments to suggest the trotting, then galloping steeds.

It all makes for some potent storytelling: Pastor’s “pliable and persevering” Ichabod is a sad martyr, punished, it seems, for daring to marry above his station. If only he hadn’t closed to school early to go to this harvest dance and the horrors that happened…

The one problem with the text is that the adaptation declares that this is Irving’s most important story. Not true: That distinction clearly belongs to “Rip Van Winkle.”

   
   
Rating: ★★★
 
 

Legend of Sleepy Hollow poster - City Lit Theater

REVIEW: Spring Awakening (Promethean Theatre)

The original coming-of-age story

 

springawake1

 
Promethean Theatre Ensemble presents
 
Spring Awakening
 
By Frank Wedekind
Directed by
Stephen F. Murray
at
The Artistic Home, 3914 N. Clark (map)
through May 9th |  tickets: $20  |  more info

by Barry Eitel

Frank Wedekind’s 1891 Spring Awakening has gotten a lot of love ever since the play’s dust was blown off and it was turned into an award-winning musical a century later featuring arrangements by Duncan “I-Am-Barely-Breathing” Sheik. A huge influence on fellow deutscher Bertolt Brecht, Wedekind’s work is known for pushing the boundaries of decency on stage. Spring Awakening could appropriately be described as ahead of its time in its depiction of how much young adults talk about sex, stress over school, and masturbate. Hitching a ride on the musical’s success, Promethean Theatre Ensemble’s production, adapted and directed by Stephen F. Murray, reminds us the less musical original is still worthy of our attention. While the springawake3 cast is enthusiastic and lively, Promethean’s Awakening is uneven and throws too much energy into worrying about revitalizing the script.

The awakening in Spring Awakening is both sexual and intellectual, and it happens to a bunch of the youthful characters at once. Thank you, puberty. Melchior (a dashing Nick Lake) rebels against his oppressive 19th-century society by giving up God and structured morals while personally introducing several of his peers to their changing bodies. He learns intelligence does not equal wisdom, though, as he gradually tears down his own world. His best friend Moritz (Tyler Rich), fights being dragged into puberty like he fights to pass into the next grade, which has several less chairs. His worry over school pushes him to despair, a storyline not unfamiliar today. Wendla (Devon Candura), a masochist discovering herself, is Wedekind’s biggest victim. She is prey to her lack of sexual education and prey to Melchior’s self-absorbed profligacy. Though focusing on these three stories, Wedekind peppers the play with several quick scenes where other kids are awakened, discovering masturbation and homosexuality, as well as compassion and love.

With all of the secondary and tertiary characters, this is an excellent ensemble piece. The Promethean cast energetically takes on several roles apiece. They do everything with assurance and commitment, which is required to keep the meandering piece moving ahead.

That being said, Murray makes some overwrought stylistic choices that push Wedekind’s themes much too hard. All of the adults in Wedekind’s play are written strict, stupid, and stiff as cardboard. Here, they wear grotesque, inhuman masks. Although the masks help distinguish the actors playing adults from the actors portraying children, they aren’t necessary. This talented cast could take on the mechanical old roles without the overbearing costuming; in fact, it would make the springawake2production more dynamic and fascinating. Also, the play jumps between many scenes and the transitions could be cleaner. The Brechtian spoken scene titles, in execution, weigh the momentum of the production down.

Although most of the actors look too old, the leads propel the heady play forward. Lake’s Melchior is self-assured and driven, yet blissfully unaware of the chaos he causes until it is too late. While teetering on overdramatic (although these are teenagers), Rich shines throughout the piece, drawing the audience with him on his overstressed journey. The honest Candura gains our sympathy without begging for it or playing the victim, a tough line to toe. Of the secondary characters, Zachary Clark and Cole Simon are memorable in their famously homoerotic scene. Wedekind throws a thought-provoking twist by making the couple the only healthy relationship in the play.

Murray’s choices drop some of Wedekind’s ironic humor, a sad loss. However, the cast is excited to present the story, a story which is as relevant today as it was one hundred years ago. The play doesn’t need the impositions, but honest, youthful energy. Fortunately, there’s enough of the latter to keep the piece moving.

 
 
Rating: ★★½
 
 

 

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