Hell's Bells: Familiar ring 

Savage Tree Arts Project goes for the jugular

Savage Tree Arts Project's Hell's Bells resembles what a midnight gathering in the parlor of Anne Rice's house must be like. Directed and adapted by Kyle Crew, Hell's Bells presents readings and dramatized interpretations of creepy old poems, songs and stories, some dating back to before the 1830s. It's like goth heaven, except goths probably don't believe in heaven.

You can enjoy Hell's Bells for its appreciation of lively verse and obscure classics, although the show suffers from some limitations as drama. As Crew acknowledges in the director's note, none of the works were written for the stage, and some have marked difficulties setting an effective pace. During Saki's "The Open Window," a ghost story with an amusing twist ending, a nervous visitor (composer Matthew Trautwein) makes a long pause that's meant to convey fright, but instead simply seems endless. Similarly, Lewis Carroll's "Phantasmagoria" depicts a naïve young ghost (the versatile Enisha Dickerson) haunting a nonplussed homeowner (Trautwein) and feels far too drawn out, despite the cleverness of its concept.

Watching Hell's Bells makes you aware of the challenge of doing justice to another era's vision of frights without simply feeling dated. Winslow Thomas heavily pushes an old-fashioned, booming, melodramatic acting style – if he had a mustache, he'd twirl it during "The Eaten Heart." Fortunately he dials it back at the end for Edgar Allen Poe's "The Raven," in which Erin Greenway speaks for the unseen raven while portraying the narrator's ghostly wife, Lenore. The concept works quite well and provides a fresh enough interpretation that it's not overshadowed by the Center for Puppetry Arts' Tales of Edgar Allen Poe earlier this year.

Mostly Hell's Bells features minimal sets and costumes, with the actors in formal wear (the men in waistcoats and tails). In the best visual effect, "The Demon of the Gibbet" takes place entirely in silhouette against a deep-red background and eerily matches Fitz-James O'Brien's account of a ghostly figure in a tree. The production also features some saving graces, such as Trautwein's moody compositions and the singing of Kristina Baade, whose presence is at once ethereal and earthy. Despite some spooky highlights, however, the whole of Hell's Bells feels like less than the sum of its dismembered parts.

Hell's Bells. Through Nov. 19. $20-$24. Thurs.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 7 p.m. Savage Tree Arts Project, Theatre Decatur, 430 W. Trinity Place. 404-373-5311. www.savagetree.org.


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