When searching for something festive to do this Halloween, Western North Carolina has much to offer. Amid the showy productions, Immediate Theatre Project may have an unforeseen hit on its hands. Live From WVL Radio Theater: The Headless Hessian of Sleepy Hollow and Other American Horror Stories, adapted by Willie Repoley, makes its world premiere at N.C. Stage Company through Sunday, Oct. 16.
From the get-go, the audience is part of a vintage radio show as four vocal actors go live throughout the witching hour. They play dozens of characters in three classic horror stories while standing before an old-fashioned microphone, the pages of their scripts tossed frivolously at their feet. Behind them is a table of random objects used to make distinct sounds for those tuning in at home.
Part of the charm is in what we don’t see but visualize, like little boys sprawled out in front of a console radio, their cautious parents on the sofa behind, knitting or pretending to thumb through a newspaper. We do witness the actors skittering about the stage, which is an excellent opportunity for comedy.
The radio show is framed with a horror story of its own. It would seem a curse is set in motion by performing The Headless Hessian of Sleepy Hollow and, of course, the reluctant cast decides to broadcast it. Patrick Brandt as Mays is exceptional, highlighted most in the framework story. His husky voice matches the radio-era to sheer perfection, flashing a John Wayne-style dialect for good measure.
Blythe Coons as Kitty shares a likeness to “American Horror Story”’s Sarah Paulson. Her slender red dress, by precise costumer Deborah Austin, snaps us to attention, and Coons’ vocal differentiations are clearly the show’s most distinct and challenging. However, her concentration gave her the appearance of being the least acquainted with the script. Coons rarely took her eyes from the pages in order to bring the story into the room. She’s terrific though, especially as Lizzie Borden, and a welcome addition to this extremely talented cast.
The beautiful Lauren Fortuna, as Evelyn, implements the grand visual of a USO Entertainer. Not only that, she has apparent “final girl” potential — a philosophical film term used to describe a young ingénue plagued by the stalker till the final reel. The play doesn’t broaden enough into such a mystery, though, and, in a sense, feels barren. It leaves us asking, “Who are these people in relation to each other?”
Since this is a series, one suspects the characters’ lives become more relevant, but only mastermind Repoley, who plays Lee, knows what more is in store. He’s a truly excellent actor with a keen sense for vintage style. His transatlantic accent is put to superb usage here. Repoley is well suited for Ichabod Crane in the title story, but, unfortunately, it doesn’t reach the stellar strength of Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart, which is the standout piece.
Poe’s writing grieves with such pulsating terror. It has the ability to claw into the depths of our soul, still, to this day. Repoley was extremely wise to strip any excess surrounding it. Director Michael MacCauley addresses the terror with stoic stances and direct movements — synchronized breaths chillingly echo through the microphones. The clever heartbeat against an empty luggage sends fearful tears to our eyes as the story reaches its anxiety-driven conclusion.
This production is marvelous and maturely executed. A horror purist may grimace at the cop-out ending, favoring abruptness rather than a bowtie. From the direction though, the aim was to coax out more comedy and, on that level, it highly succeeds. Don’t miss it as it appears like an apparition, then vanishes as quickly as it came.
WHAT: Live From WVL Radio Theater: The Headless Hessian of Sleepy Hollow and Other American Horror Stories
WHERE: N.C. Stage Company, 15 Stage Lane, ncstage.org
WHEN: Thursday through Saturday, Oct. 13-15, at 7:30 p.m., and Sunday, Oct. 16, at 2 p.m., (with a matinee on Friday at 10 a.m.). $15-$25.