In the Moment: ‘Sleepy Hollow’ at Synetic Theater

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As if inspired by Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness or even Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now, Synetic’s highly original production of Sleepy Hollow, performed without dialogue, is an adult thriller about traipsing into a dark forbidden place and finding insanity along the way.

Synetic Theater's production of Sleepy Hollow runs through November 4. Photo by Brittany DiLiberto.
Synetic Theater’s production of Sleepy Hollow runs through November 4. Photo by Brittany DiLiberto.

Yet there is survival, resilience, and redemption for several characters, even as horror is hard to miss.

Audiences can thank long-time Synetic adaptor Nathan Weinberger and director and Synetic Founding Artistic Director, Paata Tskiurishvili for this marvel of a take on Washington Irving’s 1820 short story epic of a ghostly tale. The Synetic production of Sleepy Hollow (reviewed here by DCMTA’s Kendall Mostafavi) gallops full speed ahead, with a never-look-back attitude.

Let me mix performing arts here–Synetic’s Sleepy Hollow is cinematic with a hard-hitting, eye-popping conclusion to grab patrons and hold them. Before the final fade into black, are scenes that depict difficult issues grappled with today, including domestic violence and the definition of masculinity. So be prepared.

Some personal observations:

Nathan Weinberger’s adaptation brings a hot focus on characters who could be overlooked as The Headless Horseman (Scott S. Turner) takes center stage. In Weinberger’s gutsy, wily take, however, other characters have their shot at center stage joining with the Headless Horseman and the infamous Ichabod Crane (played by Vato Tsikurishvili). The characters are Crane’s love interest Katrina Van Tassel (portrayed by McLean Jesse) and Crane’s rival Brom Bones (portrayed by Justin J. Bell).

With Paata Tskiurishvili’s creative mind, a non-human character also finds a well-deserved spotlight, providing a fine backstory to the “why” for the Headless Horseman’s anger and need for revenge. The character is the Horseman’s own steed. The horse is a large scale fabricated puppet depicted from the neck up along with a leg made from what appears to be metal and wood. The Synetic horse expresses a visible personality and moods through poses performed by puppeteers Anne Flowers, Megan Khaziran, and Matt R. Stover. In one scene, what was done to the horse under Ichabod Crane’s demonic demands led me to sniffle in dismay.

Vato Tskiurishvili’s portrayal of an anxious, bullying Ichabod Crane is one that often knocked my socks off. He took on a fearful coward’s demeanor. Hiding behind the bravery of others, this Crane was to be reviled. But then, came a moment when I genuinely thought of Marlon Brando as Colonel Kurtz with Martin Sheen as Captain Willard in hot pursuit. Vato Tskiurishvili’s descent into depravity and insanity is something to be witnessed.

Synetic Theater's production of Sleepy Hollow runs through November 4. Photo by Brittany DiLiberto.
Synetic Theater’s production of Sleepy Hollow runs through November 4. Photo by Brittany DiLiberto.

McLean Jesse brings a fine acting prowess to her role as Katrina Van Tassel. Sure, she can move with the Synetic movement and physical style. But it is her facial expressions, her resolute poise that caught my attention. She is not to be trifled with by Crane or anyone. In one scene, she stands just so, her jaw tight, her eyes like lasers, wordlessly communicating, “I will take no more shit from you.” In another, she bravely stands toe to toe with The Headless Horseman. She does not blink.

As Brom, Justin J. Bell is in a passage over the course of the production to become a character who truly has the backs of others. He stands up for himself and there is a reward for his finding his own agency. It is a reward that brings a sly smile to his on-stage presence.

Synetic’s Sleepy Hollow is quite an examination of screwed up male authority and its effect on others. It makes masculine darkness visible. It is meaty. It is about a world in which too many have gone mad with dire consequences for others. And the only voiced utterance heard is a well-placed grunt from McLean Jesse’s Katrina Van Tassel.

Synetic’s Sleepy Hollow ends as a poignant piece. I see it as not just for Halloween, but for any time of year. It is haunting. It is potent. It is creepy.

Running Time: About 80 minutes, with no intermission.

Sleepy Hollow plays through November 4, 2018, at Synetic Theater – 1800 South Bell Street, in Arlington, VA. For tickets, call the box office at (866) 811-4111, or go online.

Note: This production is recommended for ages 13 and up.

Note: Project Gutenberg text of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow can be found here.

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