The plot of Synetic Theater’s “Sleepy Hollow” would startle Washington Irving, but the American author would recognize at least one thrilling image: a spectral horseback rider, galloping through a forest. Sweeping past skeletal trees, the rider looks larger than life: His colossal steed moves with strides that are simultaneously exuberant and menacing. The tableau seems to point not only to the existence of a ghostly realm, but also to the idea (central to Irving’s 19th-century story “The Legend of Sleepy Hollow”) that fear has momentum and magnifying properties.
The galloping sequence is just one of the pulse-quickening effects in this production, the latest in Synetic’s wordless adaptations of classics. Directed by Paata Tsikurishvili, with choreography by Irina Tsikurishvili, “Sleepy Hollow” also includes rousing fight scenes (complete with vaulting leaps and full-body throws); a nifty slow-motion riptide that carries characters back in time; and a scene in which the Headless Horseman (Scott S. Turner) generates a maelstrom of disembodied noggins.
“Sleepy Hollow” isn’t equal to the very best work by Synetic, the troupe known for daring theatrical movement and visual coups. The visually arresting touches here sometimes seem purely sensationalistic, rather than also reflecting deep truths about society, human behavior and literature. Still, there is nothing aesthetically dozy about “Sleepy Hollow.”
Drastically altering Irving’s tale, the show spins a saga about war, romantic rivalry and murderous supernatural revenge. (Nathan Weinberger is the adapter.) Following a crime committed by the thuggish Ichabod Crane (a glowering Vato Tsikurishvili) and his army pals (Justin J. Bell, Thomas Beheler and Jordan Clark Halsey), the Horseman and his horse’s Spirit (a prancing Maryam Najafzada) retaliate from beyond the grave, spurring Ichabod’s feisty wife, Katrina (McLean Fletcher), to action.
Phil Charlwood’s decaying-forest set is suitably foreboding. So is the shivery music by composer and sound designer Konstantine Lortkipanidze, who appears onstage, quasi-headless, to play a branch-enshrouded piano. Ensemble members Anne Flowers, Megan Khaziran and Matt R. Stover contribute valuably to the eeriness as puppeteers. (Erik Teague designed the period costumes, rich in tricorn hats.)
It’s the lead-up to Halloween, so “Sleepy Hollow” isn’t the only gothic show around: There’s also Creative Cauldron’s “Nevermore,” which broods over the life and imaginings of Edgar Allan Poe. Scored by Matt Conner, with a book by Grace Barnes and lyrics adapted from Poe’s writings, “Nevermore” had a previous Creative Cauldron run in 2011. (Signature Theatre premiered the musical in 2006.) Conner directs this atmospheric revival, which unfurls on a set anchored by a shipwrecked boat, recalling the “kingdom by the sea” in “Annabel Lee.” (Scenic designer Margie Jervis also devised the props — lots of whiskey bottles and crumpled pages — and period costumes.)
Stephen Gregory Smith portrays a suitably moody Poe, whom we see prowling through a phantasmagoria peopled by women he has known. He bickers with his Mother (Katherine Riddle), placates his bratty cousin-turned-child-bride, Virginia (Sarah Hurley), and communes with his first love, Elmira (Erin Granfield). When inspired, he scribbles intently on a woman’s arm.
The performers (who include Jennifer Lyons Pagnard and Mary Kate Brouillet) contribute sturdy characterizations; the singing is respectable; and the instrumentalists do a decent job filling in Conner’s poignantly roiling score. The show’s high point is the invigorating musical setting of “The Raven,” during which Poe and the women all brandish quill pens — a reminder that people hunger for stories, even scary ones.
Sleepy Hollow, adapted by Nathan Weinberger from Washington Irving. Directed by Paata Tsikurishvili; assistant director, Tori Bertocci; lighting, Brian S. Allard. With Scean Aaron and Katherine Cárdenas-Cruz. About 80 minutes. Tickets: $15-$60. Through Nov. 4 at 1800 S. Bell St., Arlington. synetictheater.org or 866-811-4111. Nevermore, music by Matt Conner; lyrics adapted from Edgar Allan Poe; book by Grace Barnes. Directed by Conner; music direction, Jenny Cartney; lighting, Lynn Joslin. About 90 minutes. Tickets: $20-$32. Through Oct. 28 at Creative Cauldron, 410 S. Maple Ave., Falls Church. creativecauldron.org or 703-436-9948.