The Center for Puppetry Arts' Tales of Edgar Allan Poe inadvertently reveals a secret that our English teachers have held for generations. How do you trick students into learning about American literature? Scare the bejesus out of them with Poe's grisly stories. There's nothing like a dismembered corpse or a premature burial to seize a classroom's attention.
Tales of Edgar Allan Poe, adapted and directed by Bobby Box, serves as a spooky and smart introduction and deconstruction of the tortured poet's works. "The Raven" opens the show, and the narrator's references to his lost Lenore lead to excerpts from Poe's "Lenore" poem. The pleasant silver bells of "The Bells" find echoes in the bell-tipped hat of the gesture Fortunato, the victim in "The Cask of Amontillado," and so on.
Veteran Shakespearean actor John Ammerman perfectly pronounces the rolling cadences of Poe's 19th-century verse. Janet Metzger maintains a deadpan gravity, and I particularly liked how Michael Haverty, as "the dreadfully nervous" narrator of "The Tell-Tale Heart," kept his voice eerily calm to hint at the madness within. Atlanta composer Klimchak provides fiendishly fun musical accompaniment and sound effects from a variety of bizarre instruments, even a theremin for spectral noises.
The whole Poe production comes together superbly. Looking at F. Elaine Williams' set design feels like being in a Tim Burton movie, with its crumbling staircase, overhanging moon and coffin-like grandfather clock at the foot of the stage. The narrator/puppeteers remain costumed and visible throughout the show, but the creepy effects and vivid narrative keep them from being a distraction.
In perhaps the most postmodern touch, the play's latter section alternates between three stories: "Berenice," "The Black Cat" and "The Tell-Tale Heart." It's a clever choice, given that the tales have a nearly identical structure. Box's attempt to capture a cinematic style with sped-up "cross-cutting" hits a snag in that the three puppeteers have to pause to take their places for each plot, impeding the pace. Tales of Edgar Allan Poe could use some additional tightening, and at times you wonder if a little Zoloft would have alleviated Poe's morbid ruminations. But with its timeless terrors and haunted-house design, Tales of Edgar Allan Poe resembles the kind of nightmare you can't wait to have again.
Tales of Edgar Allan Poe. Through Feb. 11. $16.67-$20.37. Wed., 11 a.m.; Thurs.-Fri., 11 a.m. and 8 p.m.; Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 5 p.m. Center for Puppetry Arts, 1404 Spring St. 404-873-3391. www.puppet.org.