Out of Their Heads With Fear: 'The Hollow'

September 1, 2011

Most of the folktales we know, love and mine for their disturbing psychological implications come to us from the deep German woods of the Grimm brothers. Only a few American yarns so effectively tap into our culture’s bedrock uneasiness. Perhaps the most famous involves a man without a head (who’s sometimes on fire!) and a village called Sleepy Hollow.

As with all our most resonant legends, writers keep coming back to it. This time, Washington Irving’s 1820 short story is told through song, in Signature Theatre’s “The Hollow,” by Matt Conner (music and lyrics) and Broadway actor Hunter Foster (book).

The world premiere, the latest from the Signature’s American Musical Voices Project, is less about decapitations and more about how humans react when their lives and their way of life are threatened.

“We started talking about fear, what fear is and what fear causes people to do,” Foster says. “I said, ‘I want to make sure we’re not just going to do a literal interpretation.’ I wanted to create an allegory, not just a headless person running around chopping people’s heads off.”

“The Hollow” probes the psyches of 18th-century Sleepy Hollow residents as they face two unknowns: a ghostly, headless intruder and progressive thinker Ichabod Crane, who wants to teach kids about books other than the Bible.

The creative team took inspiration from Arthur Miller’s “The Crucible,” which used the Salem witch trials to skewer McCarthyism, and from the panic that swept the U.S. after Sept. 11, 2001.

“[The residents'] fear of Crane almost overtakes their fear of the Headless Horseman,” Foster says. “The story gets into the Tea Party mentality of people being afraid and forming groups — we see how far fear can push a group of people.”

Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Ave., Arlington; through Oct. 16, $29-$82; 703-820-9771.

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Nevin Martell · September 1, 2011