If you've been following along with my Halloween adventures this year, you've already survived a surfeit of jump scares and your jangled nerves might be jonesing for a seasonal treat that's a little less jarring, a little more literary. In that case, the Orlando Repertory Theatre (orlandorep.com) is presenting a one-man production of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow now through All Hallows' Eve that promises to immerse audiences in Washington Irving's classic chiller. But don't let the family-friendly designation delude you into thinking this is another Disneyfied take on the tale of Ichabod Crane, because this show stars Stephen Pugh, a performer who recently faced down a foe even more frightening than the Headless Horseman: COVID-19.
If Pugh's name isn't already familiar to you, you haven't been paying attention. He's been a fixture on Orlando's stages since the mid-aughts, from Theatre Downtown to Universal Orlando, including nearly two dozen roles at the Rep. He relocated to Boston for nearly three years, which is where he was hospitalized with a serious case of the coronavirus last year.
"It's been a wonderful recovery from all that. I'm very, very happy that I haven't had any long-term problems," Pugh said of his recovery during a recent interview ahead of last Friday's opening night. "I'm extremely happy and very grateful that [COVID-19] hasn't ruined anything permanently for me, and being back home working has boosted everything to a better level."
After making a brief return to Orlando in 2019 to star in the Rep's How I Became a Pirate, Pugh moved back permanently late last year. He recently served as a teaching artist for the Rep's summer camps, which he says was "a trip! The kids are so intense and wonderful to mold. ... Teach[ing] them all the different tricks of improv or performance space, the extra stuff of theater that these camps provide ... it was a really cool experience." He especially lauds artistic director Jeff Revels and his staff for responsibly organizing socially distanced and face-masked camps and even helping Pugh get his own vaccination.
The Rep's camps also afforded Pugh another opportunity to advocate for presenting Derek G. Martin and Jesse M. Sullivan's adaptation of The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, which he had previously stepped into for a 2018 production in Plymouth, Massachusetts.
"When COVID hit, I kept thinking in the back of my head: It's a one-man show; this is the safest thing you could do if you're looking to do theater and still have that distance with the audience, [because] what's safer than just one person telling a tale?" recalls Pugh. "I knew the Rep could really immerse an audience into the story. They really always made these classic tales bigger and bolder than you would expect."
The show's script is largely faithful to Irving's original words, drawing descriptive passages directly from the text, but Pugh says Martin and Sullivan "wanted something a little bit more engaging, so they didn't over-poeticize the writing." And while the setting is still in the 1790s, some characters (like the boorish Brom Bones) incorporate just enough modern tweaks "to give the audience and kids a little bit of the stuff they like, so that it really connects with them too."
Filling the Rep's large, three-quarter-thrust Universal Orlando Foundation Theatre all alone might seem like a daunting challenge for a solo performer, but it's one Pugh says he's trained for over his 13-plus-shows in the building, many in that very venue. "I love that stage," enthuses Pugh. "I love every time I go on how different it is, but how much it's the same ... To be fully immersed with it again, it's coming home. I feel very comfortable just being my big, loud self."
Although he's the only live performer on stage in Sleepy Hollow, he's sharing the spotlight with Cliff Price's set, Alexandria Vazquez's costumes, Vandy Wood's lighting, Sarah Bender Allen's props, and sound design by Anthony Narciso with Anthony Marshall. It's all under the direction of Tara Kromer, with whom Pugh previously collaborated on The Giver.
Putting aside all the flaming pumpkins and Colonial trappings, what really caught my attention was Pugh's enthusiasm for an important lesson that today's audiences can learn from Irving's long-vanished schoolmaster.
"In this version, your first narration is a teacher talking to students about what's really going on in their town," says Pugh. "I feel that's important nowadays, when we're getting our news from every which way and we don't know what is real, what's truth and what's fiction. Here's a teacher trying to explain that this is your town's history, this is what we're going to need to talk about, because other people don't want you to hear the other side of what could be real.
"I really find that poignant, because it happened back then; it's happening now; it's going to keep happening. The next generation is going to have to decide: 'Do I want to believe this, and is there the evidence to support it?'"