Credit: Brittany Diliberto

Ichabod Crane the gangly schoolteacher has got nothing on Ichabod Crane the jock frat boy.

Synetic Theater, Washington’s leading (and only) interpreter of literary works without the words that made them classics, has tackled Sleepy Hollow for Halloween. The resulting show is phenomenal, full of spooks and sex and murderous machismo. If that sounds like a slight departure from Washington Irving’s original legend, well, who the hell cares?

There are plenty of other Sleepy Hollows populated by goofy prudes and pumpkin heads.

The Synetic production stars Vato Tskurishvili, the brawny son of company co-founders Paata and Irina Tsikurishvili, as the lucky Ichabod who gets the girl in Irving’s fictional upstate New York hamlet. But McLean Jesse’s Katrina Van Tassel, who Irving described as a blooming coquette wearing short petticoats, is no docile lass who sits around tatting doilies. McLean’s Katrina knows she’s a catch, but she’s also a spitfire, anxious to go looking for the marauding ghost herself. Sadly, the search reveals just as much about her husband’s violent streak as it does the Hessian, known to many as the Headless Horseman.

Katrina discovers Ichabod’s moral failings through a flashback which depicts his encounter in the woods with the Hessian soldier and his wounded horse. According to Irving, the soldier was killed years before during the American Revolution. Synetic smartly condenses to the action, and has Ichabod behead the mercenary himself. (Nathan Weinberger wrote the libretto.) The flashback scene is skillfully woven into the 90-minute show, and is a prime example of Synetic’s knack for finding new theatrical tricks to tell old stories, with bonus points for empowering female characters in the process. In Sleepy Hollow, the innovations include puppetry, a treadmill, and casting a ballet dancer in the role of the horse.

Many artists affiliated with Synetic hail from former Soviet republics. Maryam Najafzada performed in Azerbaijan’s national ballet company, and while she’s not a technical virtuoso, she’s ideal as an anthropomorphic equine. Choreographer Irina Tsikurishvili, a classically trained dancer herself, uses ballet’s precise movement vocabulary to set Najafzada apart from the humans, and convey the ethereal connection between the Hessian and his mount.

The homosapiens aren’t too shabby either. In a celebratory tavern scene near the show’s opening, four couples whirl about executing the same jumps-into-lifts that you might see professional dancers perform at the Kennedy Center, but are here interspersed with early American folk-dancing.

The Revolutionary War victory party gives both Ichabod and his rival, Brom (Justin J. Bell), a chance to woo Katrina. The less brash, better man loses out, but at least viewers get a great (but fully clothed!) sex scene out of this marriage.

Ichabod was, in Irving’s text, “tall, but exceedingly lank, with narrow shoulders, long arms and legs.” Vato Tsikurishvili, by contrast, has the body of an NFL running back. To consummate the marriage he bench-presses Jesse, who arches her back with pleasure mid-lift.

Fight scenes are equally athletic, with plenty of gymnastics for Ichabod, Brom, and Scott Turner, as the headless Hessian who sprints through the forest on a treadmill. When the ensemble surrounds Najafzada to create a much more intimidating horse through means of puppetry, the effect is awe-inspiring, the best thing since War Horse.

There’s no fake blood in Sleepy Hollow, and the detached heads are abstracted enough to be grotesque but not gross. (The show is likely appropriate for kids 10 and older.) There’s just one element not effectively deployed to keep the audience in early American fright-night mode, and that’s the original music composed by Konstantine Lortkipanidze.

The show begins with Lortkipanidze alone in the headless horseman costume at an onstage piano, playing a variation on the Dies Irae, a medieval funeral chant referenced by many classical composers. The sonata sets the mood well, as do the chipper tunes for the colonial tavern scene. If he had stuck to those idioms rather than subbing in cinematic action hero music later on, this Sleepy Hollow would hold together even better as a beautiful horror story. Instead, the score sounds haphazard at times, and way too generic during the fight scenes. But at least when the lone horseman returns to the piano at show’s end, Synetic gives us an image that’s the stuff theatrical legends are made of.

To Nov. 4 at 1800 South Bell St., Arlington. $15–$60. (703) 824-8060. synetictheater.org.

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