E.T.A. Hoffmann’s story has its share of gothic elements: the nutcracker hero with the Jolly Roger smile, for instance, and his seven-headed rodent adversary. This Incurable Theater production retains all the most dramatic episodes, like the battle between the toys and rodents culminating in their commanders’ thrilling duel. But Incurable distances us from the more horrific motifs by using puppets–hand, rod, shadow, and marionettes–and masked actors. Assisted by a four-piece orchestra playing music that echoes the workings of mechanical curios, this Nutcracker tells a poignant tale of courage and sacrifice yet never risks being too scary for young audiences. Through 1/8: Fri 7 PM, Sat 3 and 7 PM, Sun 7 PM, Chicago Cultural Center, studio theater, 78 E. Washington (enter at 77 E. Randolph), 773-635-0109, $10-$15.