Theater Review - Sleepy Hollow cleverly turns working stable into haunted house

A tip of the hat - and head - to Serenbe's Sleepy Hollow adaptation

At environmental shows, the environment often turns out to be the star. Lately, an engaging, occasionally gimmicky theatrical trend transplants stage plays into unconventional performing spaces and takes audiences on lively tours. Environmental shows from earlier this year have taken place throughout the Decatur Library (The Lucky Penny's Hidden Away), the warehouses of the Lifecycle Building Center (Saïah's Moby Dick), and the Goat Farm (7 Stages' The Navigator).

Such shows can give spectators' legs and feet a workout while proving less intellectually taxing. With The Sleepy Hollow Experience, Serenbe Playhouse eagerly takes on the idea of a show on the hoof. The company's interest in the format comes as no surprise, as it specializes in all-outdoor productions in and around the idyllic Serenbe community south of Atlanta. Directed by Bryan Clowdus, The Sleepy Hollow Experience would prove a thin offering in a conventional theater, but enjoyably captures the Halloween spirit by taking place at the Stables in Serenbe.

Kathryn Schultz Miller's adaptation of Washington Irving's classic story takes place at an actual working stable on the Serenbe property. Most of the equine residents seem to have been relocated for the show, but the lingering horsey smell evokes an agrarian community of 200 years past better than any other bit of dialogue or stage design.

Chris Mayers plays schoolteacher Ichabod Crane, who moves to a small town and finds a rival in thuggish local Brom Bones (Jacob Cooper). Brom might be a roughneck bully, but Ichabod isn't likable as a supposedly scholarly man terrified of ghost stories, especially those involving a Headless Horseman. Plus, he courts spoiled heiress Katrina Van Tassel (Jessica Miesel) out of ambition for her family land. Irving's story partly targets small-town anti-intellectualism, but the civilized character seems no less morally compromised.

At about 12,000 words, Irving's short story lacks enough plot to flesh out a standard theatrical evening, so The Sleepy Hollow Experience includes plenty of folk songs, with original compositions and sound design by Jevares C. Myrick and Bobby Johnston. The songs don't advance the story much, but add enough texture so they don't feel like padding. Brandon Partrick and Laura Floyd serve as storytellers and various townspeople, and Floyd in particular hams it up, like Helena Bonham Carter playing a cockney fishwife.

The creaky stable atop a rolling hill proves a terrific location for a spooky evening, even though its acoustics and sight lines can be a mixed showcase for the action. The evening begins in the stable's upstairs loft which features a light from a central well. In the opening scene, the characters are partially lit from below, like people holding flashlights to their chins for spooky campfire stories. As the audience winds their way in and out of the stable, we hear occasional shrieks and glimpse ghostly figures, often partially obscured or at a distance, affirming the idea that something you can't fully see is scarier than something out in the open.

The Sleepy Hollow Experience would rise or fall based on the strength of its Headless Horseman, and without spoiling anything, I'll say that the evening builds to an ingenious, spine-chilling finale that leaves haunting images unlike any I've ever seen before. If the show works better as a particularly elaborate "ghost tour" rather than a standard play, The Sleepy Hollow Experience's spookiest moments just might leave you sleepless.

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