Fear can lead us dangerously astray. Just ask Ichabod Crane, the earnest, if quirky schoolteacher of Washington Irving’s “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow.”
The versatile Paul Melendy plays Crane, and everyone else, in an amusing and exciting new adaptation of the story, which is having its world premiere at Greater Boston Stage Company through Nov. 6. Playwright John Minigan (the exquisite “Noir Hamlet”) manages to give this familiar tale a fresh eye, mostly through Melendy’s bravura performance.
The action opens where all great ghost stories do, by a warm hearth, where Melendy morphs into the short-story writer Washington Irving, then into Diedrich Knickerbocker, the man who regaled Irving and others with a story of the headless horseman, and then into Ichabod Crane himself. As Melendy describes “hands that dangled a mile out of his sleeves,” “a long snipe nose,” “feet served for shovels,” and a “frame loosely hung together,” every inch of his body vividly reflects the lanky schoolmaster who ventured into Sleepy Hollow to improve the minds of young schoolboys.
But these first few minutes simply draw us into the quiet countryside atmosphere where a relatively new schoolmaster supplements his diet by sharing gossip and a meal with the local housewives, and his meager teacher’s income by leading the church choir and offering music lessons to the young women. Over the next hour or so, Melendy bends every muscle — vocal and physical — to deliver a self-absorbed although sympathetic Crane, as well as every other member of the town he interacts with.
Crane allows his ego — and perhaps his empty stomach — to get the better of him and decides to ask for the hand of Katrina Van Tassel in marriage, as much because of her father’s wealth and his wish for creature comforts as for the young woman herself. He sets a plan in motion — becoming her music teacher and then ingratiating himself into her family. He is so unaware of himself and his place in the town, he allows his imagination to run away with him, interpreting the most innocuous comments as encouragement.
The Van Tassels’ harvest celebration, which Crane sees as the payoff for all his planning, also pulls together many of the story’s elements. Watch Melendy as he registers surprise that what he thought was an invitation for him alone instead includes everyone in Sleepy Hollow.
Melendy is a master of vocal inflections, which he puts to good use here, but director Weylin Symes guides his actor to find just the right balance between dramatic storyteller and caricature. Watching Melendy is a joy, as he doesn’t just portray each character, he embodies them. Listen as Crane sings the church hymns, increasing the volume without guile, or when he gobbles down all sorts of food, and lots of spiked cider, without apology, or when he dances without inhibition at the Van Tassels’ abundant party, or when he portrays the Sleepy Hollow Boys as a gang of juvenile delinquents, straight out of Brooklyn. And when he rides the horse Gunpowder, first awkwardly to the Van Tassels’ party, and then frantically as he tries to get home, you will not only forget Melendy has actually mounted a sawhorse, but you will also find your own heart racing as the specter of the headless horseman draws near.
Kathy Monthei’s scenic design offers just enough detail to suggest where we are at any given moment — a pub, the schoolhouse, the abundant food table at the Van Tassels’ home, in the stable with the horses, outside at a bonfire with the Sleepy Hollow Boys. At the same time, the spaces include gates and doors, allowing Melendy to clearly delineate his playing areas.
Minigan’s script, while written for Melendy, also captures both the thrill of the spooky story and its moral. He does this with subtlety and finesse, juxtaposing opportunities for Melendy’s high-octane performance with the dreamy haze of Sleepy Hollow, where shadows and suggestions can easily encourage an imagination to run wild.
Terry Byrne can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
THE LEGEND OF SLEEPY HOLLOW
Play by John Minigan, adapted from the story by Washington Irving. Directed by Weylin Symes. Presented by Greater Boston Stage Company, Stoneham, through Nov. 6. Tickets $25-$69. 781-279-2200, www.greaterbostonstage.org.