Perhaps no image sums up the undead spirit of Halloween better than the dancing skeleton. Toe-tapping skeletons with xylophone vertebrae provide the backbones of any Mexican Day of the Dead parade. On film, animated skeletons go back at least as far as the 1929 Walt Disney cartoon "Skeleton Dance," which finds a lavish, high-tech counterpart in Tim Burton's The Nightmare Before Christmas, gussied up in digital 3-D for its current rerelease.
The Center for Puppetry Arts does the animation better with dancing ghouls as a "live" spectacle, albeit in marionette form. One of the highlights of the center's seasonal spook-a-thon, The Ghastly Dreadfuls II, presents "Danse Macabre," Saint-Saens' famously eerie composition performed live as a graveyard jamboree. Trick puppets feature witches on errant broomsticks, ghosts giving birth to little haunts, and skeletons that guzzle alcohol, make out, split apart and snap back together. It's as though you're never so light on your feet as when you've shucked off your flesh and other earthly cares.
At Halloween, the performing arts transform into a bubbling cauldron of diverse cultural influences, from harvest festivals and slasher films to kitschy, gothic music and the oral tradition of sharing spine-chilling ghost stories. Some of Atlanta's most haunting Halloween shows make a monstrous riff on the cabaret approach to song, comedy and sexuality.
Created in 2006 by Jon Ludwig and Jason von Hinezmeyer, the original Ghastly Dreadfuls featured the appropriate subtitle Compendium of Graveyard Tales and Other Curiosities. The show follows seven spectral performers who rise from the cemetery to share stories that range from goofy larks to deliberately paced studies in dread. The Dreadfuls offer Halloween-themed tunes between tales, including hilarious treatments of hits from the likes of Blue Oyster Cult and Ray Parker Jr. One amusing number includes Scott DePoy's cowboy crooning of "Ghost Riders in the Sky" as the unearthly horsemen bedevil Spencer Stephens' cowpuncher on a rocking horse.
This year, Ludwig and von Hinezmeyer mount a revised version of the show, now called The Ghastly Dreadfuls II: Handbook of Practical Hauntings and Other Phantasmagoria. The evening features new songs and stories along with a few holdovers, most notably "Danse Macabre" and "The Girl in the New Dress" by Larry Letemplier. The latter unfolds as a long, scrolling mural in the style of old-fashioned Coca-Cola ads and portrays the point of view of a woman whose grip on reality proves increasingly uncertain.
The Ghastly Dreadfuls shows such trust in its audience and confidence in its material that it can negotiate whiplash changes in tone and style. The bawdy French ditty "Le Petit Vampyr" (performed in a miniature coffin) proves visually reminiscent of the Madeline children's books, while the moody Japanese tale "Yuki-Onna" features gorgeous, subtle puppet work. Stephens narrates "11:59," in which an old railroad porter tries to evade the eponymous ghost train. Most of the tale features a puppet trying to do as little as possible, but the deliberate pace never turns dull.
Ludwig dons a luchador's mask and sing-speaks "The Ghost Car," a raucous account of an ill-fated hitchhiker in the Southwestern desert that builds to a hilarious twist. For the most part, Ludwig, von Hinezmeyer and the ensemble replace the previous installment's yarns with new stories that have a similar feel. Like last year's "The Swimming Pool," "Harry" offers a chilling perspective on childhood and the afterlife when a mother voices discomfort with her adopted daughter's imaginary friend. The pale, mannequin-like puppets alone evoke a ghostly vision of suburban conformity. You never know if The Ghastly Dreadfuls will send shivers up your spine, or simply tickle your funnybone, but it's equally skilled at both.
One of the newest October traditions appears to be the release of a new Saw film, an event as predictable as the rebroadcast of "It's the Great Pumpkin, Charlie Brown." Instead of seeing Saw V's inventive atrocities, you can find more satisfying shlock with the finale of Dad's Garage Theatre's Monster Movie series. The live, improvised horror movie features two emcees, the Fiend (Lucky Yates in pale zombie makeup) and Gary Simmons (Chris Blair in a cheap Dracula cape). In fact, the Fiend also hosted an earlier, more raucous Halloween show at the Center for Puppetry Arts called Spooky Puppet Theater.
Monster Movie shows nostalgia for old-school TV horror hosts, a broadcast tradition that probably dried up before most of the Dad's cast was born. It even pays homage to classic alcoholic beverages with the weekly Drink of the Dead. Each week presents a made-up movie alleged to be too bad to be released. "And there's lots of killings! Hopefully!" according to the Fiend. In "TXT M 4 MRDR," crazed cell phone magnate Verizon T. Wireless (Scott Warren) gathered a rag-tag bunch of strangers at his creepy mansion and explained, right up front, his plan to kill them one by one and give his magical phone to the survivor. It was sort of like Willy Wonka meets a Vincent Price revenge film.
If "TXT M 4 MRDR" is a representative example, the fast and eventful Monster Movie makes a marked improvement over Dad's Garage's improvised soap opera, Scandal! The thin characterizations and corny dialogue of slasher flicks dovetail perfectly with the improvisers' talents at caricature and off-the-cuff musical numbers. Ed Morgan serves as the unseen MVP by drawing improvised props and locations on a classroom-style overheard projector. A running gag about hot dogs reached a hilarious high point when two guys ate the same (imaginary) frank until their mouths met, like Lady and the Tramp. Monster Movie finishes its season with a "Halloween Blow-Out Show" on Oct. 31, but Dad's should bring it back as soon as possible. Fake serial killings have never been so fun.
Polytropic Productions' Cabaret at the End of the Empire avoids overt supernatural themes, but in its showcase of Bertolt Brecht's and Kurt Weill's slinky, sinister melodies it sounds like Halloween. Vincenzo Tortorici and a rotating cast of performers evoke the style and spirit of a 1920s German cabaret to find parallels between the end of Old Europe and America's current state of the union.
Never mind homicidal maniacs and vengeful will-o'-the-wisps, Cabaret at the End of the Empire explores some really scary stuff, including slideshows on the horrors of war and Kim Bowers-Rheay's rendition of "Mussels of Margate," a song about the costs of petroleum dependency. Tortorici plays the evening's host, a boisterous, blood-spattered butcher who discusses the question, "Does man help man?" through subjects such as economics, politics and sex. The ensemble's mannered performance style evokes the florid singing of Brecht and Weill's time.
The performance I attended featured a single dance number from local burlesque troupe Syrens of the South. Frankly, the show could use more comedy and burlesque, because the songs, poems, puppet shows and monologues can be relentlessly grim, particularly Mira Hirsch's twofer of the song "Abortion Is Illegal" and the poem "The Infanticide Marie Farrar." (The titles kind of speak for themselves.) Tortorici amusingly uses a George W. Bush "flight suit" action figure to offer some stinging satire of American politics and has a mock trial of hapless puppets made primarily of meat.
In a way, Cabaret at the End of the Empire presents the opposite of the Halloween escapism favored by other shows this time of year, opting instead to make the audience confront societal horrors. When the Cabaret's puppets face their verdict in a meat grinder, one gets the impression that this time of year, it's better to be bone than flesh.
DRACULA Steven Dietz's fresh adaptation of the world's most notorious vampire. Through Nov. 2. $14-$30. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 2:30 p.m. Aurora Theatre, 128 Pike St., Lawrenceville. 678-226-6222. www.auroratheatre.com.
FRANKENSTEIN Mary Shelley's tale of the perils of playing God. Through Nov. 1. Towne Lake Arts Center, 6579 Commerce Parkway, Woodstock. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m. $11-$14. 678-494-4251. www.tlaclive.org.
ST. NICHOLAS A jaded Dublin theater critic encounters vampires. From the playwright of The Weir. Oct. 30-Nov. 8. $17-$23. See website for times. Onstage Atlanta, 2597 N. Decatur Road. 404-897-1802. www.onstageatlanta.com.
VINTAGE HITCHCOCK: A LIVE RADIO PLAY From the adapter of It's a Wonderful Life: A Live Radio Play comes three tales immortalized by the legendary filmmaker: The Lodger, The Lady Vanishes and The 39 Steps. Through Nov. 2. $15-$25. Legacy Theatre, 1175 Senoia Road, Tyrone. Sat., 3 and 8 p.m.; Sun., 3 p.m. 404-895-1473. www.thelegacytheatre.org.
War of the Worlds L.A. Theatre Works presents live radio-style dramatizations of the classic sci-fi novels War of the Worlds and The Lost World from H.G. Wells and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, respectively. $15-$25. Fri., Oct. 31, 8 p.m. Ferst Center for the Arts, 349 Ferst Drive. 404-894-9600. www.ferstcenter.gatech.edu.
THE WEIR An Irish pub provides the setting for an evening of rich ghost stories. Through Nov. 22. $17-$23. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m., Sun., 3 p.m. Onstage Atlanta, 2597 N. Decatur Road. 404-897-1802. www.onstageatlanta.com.
WICKED Witches provide the (anti)heroines in this hip, hit musical adaptation of The Wizard of Oz. Through Nov. 2. $39-$125. Tues.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 1 p.m. (with matinees on Thursday and Saturday). Broadway Across America. Fox Theatre, 660 Peachtree St. 404-817-8700. www.foxtheatre.org.