Everyone loves to shudder over a good ghost story, but what's more important: the story or the ghost? The Center for Puppetry Arts' creature feature Something Wicked unleashes a rogue's gallery of haunts and monsters, as well as a storyline so loose and abstract that it qualifies less as a narrative plot than a burial plot.
With its goth glorification of pointy weapons, demonic dancers and kinky sex, Something Wicked at times threatens to become a Marilyn Manson masturbation fantasy. Fortunately, writer/director Clint Thornton turns an evening of interlocking vignettes into an eccentric but eerie meditation on archetypal terrors, drawing inspiration everywhere from delicate Asian puppetry to brutal slasher films.
Something Wicked bears the subtitle "A dark cabaret," but despite having a few musical interludes -- including the nicely menacing, Tom Waits-style title song -- it's not a supernatural song-and-dance show. Instead, we follow a lost, frightened woman (April Moon) in schoolgirl clothes through what could be a haunted basement, complete with sudden bursts of steam. We encounter disembodied claws, little pesky ghosts, sword-swinging reptile mutants and most memorably, a red-eyed, carnival-style puppet with a Deadhead T-shirt who's both enormous and amorous.
A black-clad, faceless killer called the Ripper (Geoff Uterhardt) stalks the girl and provides moments of cinematic suspense. At one point, the theater goes dark and we can hear the Ripper in the audience, scraping his knife along the handrail. Such scenes can uncomfortably remind us of the misogynistic streak in the horror genre, and Something Wicked has a recurring motif of female characters being slain or strategically disrobed. Thornton comments on sexual exploitation when a scantily-clad, undead puppet-dancer sings about being a misused sex object, but while Something Wicked strives to critique its horror themes, it takes advantage of them at the same time.
Something Wicked runs through Oct. 29. Wed-Sat., 8 p.m. (and 11 p.m. Oct. 29) at the Center for Puppetry Arts, 1404 Spring St. $16-$22. 404-873-3391. www.puppet.org.