To my grim surprise, the Center for Puppetry Arts has resurrected The Ghastly Dreadfuls for another season of death-laden puppetry. Perfect timing for this world-class puppetry museum, because it will unveil its much-anticipated “Worlds of Puppetry Museum” expansion on Saturday, November 14. If you’ve never visited the Center for Puppetry Arts, check out The Ghastly Dreadfuls: Raising Spirits while it’s playing. The show, which has become a local cult favorite, is a wonderful introduction to multiple types of puppetry; and the ghoulish, bloody, suspenseful storytelling will have you on the edge of your seat.
The Ghastly Dreadfuls comprise a seven-person ensemble that sings, tap dances, and plays the theremin through a medley of stories about the dark side of life and the light side of death. One bit tells the story of the most unlikely serial killer, and in another skeletons and ghosts dance in a graveyard. In between puppet numbers are songs, such as Johnny Cash’s “Ghost Riders in the Sky” and the Disney classic “Grim Grinning Ghosts,” for which the performers ham it up for some cheap laughs. I found myself fascinated by the performers’ graceful movements in the dark as they controlled the marionettes from above— they’re like sorcerers breathing life into inanimate objects. The cast works hard; they multitask as singers, puppeteers, musicians, voice actors, dancers, and more. One Dreadful, Jason Hines, doubles as a puppet designer; while another Dreadful, T.T. Mahoney, provided music direction and arrangement.
Newcomers to The Ghastly Dreadfuls will be surprised how engaging puppetry can be, and that this ancient art form is still relevant to audiences of all ages. So many details of the stories are illuminated beautifully in the show. In “The 11:59,” smoke fills the stage and a bright light cuts through the darkness into the audience—the perfect ghost train. “The Girl in the New Dress” lets us see through the protagonist’s eyes; the puppetry consists of a scrolling background and the protagonist’s arms (as two-dimensional cutouts) as the story plays out. When the story suddenly turns grisly, seeing it from the main character’s point-of-view makes it even more chilling. While the songs are mostly upbeat, some of the puppet numbers are downright gruesome. There’s one very somber marionette number in which a betrayed circus clown hopes falling to her death will free her from pain; instead she comes back as a clown ghost to kill her cheating lover and his tightrope-walking mistress. This show definitely earns its 18+ rating.
I saw The Ghastly Dreadfuls the last two years it played (2011 and 2012), and I was excited to see it again. I thought a two-year sabbatical would mean a new show, but sadly the show relies on classic numbers a lot more than I anticipated. The new numbers “The Canterville Ghost” (a quirky Oscar Wilde story) and “More Work for the Undertaker” (a switch from their previous sing-along number “Le Petite Vampyr”) bookended the show. I wish the show had changed more so old fans like me could see it and still be surprised. Sometimes, it feels like Atlanta theaters run a hit into the ground (think Peachtree Battle at Ansley Playhouse or Waffle Palace at Horizon), and I think The Ghastly Dreadfuls has the potential to be better than that.
If you’ve never seen The Ghastly Dreadfuls, and especially if you’ve never been to the Center for Puppetry Arts, snag some tickets to see the show now! I promise you’ll be bowled over by all the artistry and theatricality of this quirky little show. If, like me, you’d seen the show before, I advise you to go see something new.
“The Ghastly Dreadfuls: Raising Spirits” plays through October 31, Wednesday-Saturday at 8pm in the Downstairs Theater. A Closing Night Party on October 31 will include Halloween games and a costume contest with prizes. For those wishing to imbibe, the “Tavern of Lost Souls” beer and wine bar will be open before the show and during intermission.
Matthew Terrell writes, photographs, and creates videos in the fine city of Atlanta. His work can be found regularly on the Huffington Post, where he covers such subjects as the queer history of the South, drag culture, and gay men’s health issues.