ORLANDO — When John DiDonna, the creator of the long-running “Phantasmagoria” series, took his troop of 40 performers on the road, he got a strong reaction from audiences outside this region, getting their introduction to the series.
“We did Atlanta, we did Baltimore, we did Eustis and Ocala,” DiDonna said. “We’re doing a lot of touring all over.”
The reaction, he said, has been similar at each new venue.
” ‘Oh my god, why have I never seen this before’ is the usual response,” he said. ‘And ‘Oh my god, when are you going to be back?’ When we performed in Ocala, the manager walked across the stage and said ‘Good show, when can I bring you back?’ ”
DiDonna is only too happy to introduce to new audiences the show he created nearly a decade ago, which is now celebrating its seventh year. It has evolved into a series, featuring the familiar circus-like troop of singers, dancers, actors and puppeteers recreating stories each year, classic tales of terror from masters like Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft, and Ambrose Bierce, among many others.
And DiDonna, who has written, directed and acted in the productions, is thrilled to keep the series going for Orlando area audiences.
And with Halloween just 19 days away, the latest installment, “Phantasmagoria VII: The Cards They Are Dealt,” kicks off on Friday night and runs through Oct. 31 with all evening performances at 8, at the Mandell Theatre inside the Lowndes Shakespeare Center, 812 E. Rollins St. in Loch Haven Park.
There will also be a special 100th Mainstage Touring Show on Halloween night.
“The story is different this year,” DiDonna said. “We are back in time to 1788, and in this particular show we’re exploring the balance between the lightness and the darkness, so you’re going to get an original story this year, and that will be fun. The whole premise this year is the stories are chosen through tarot cards.”
Another change, he said, is “The stories are quieter — and creepier. We went that route this year. We’re doing a very obscure Poe tale that I don’t think a lot of people would know. We’re doing Lovecraft again. We’re doing an Islamic tale. And we’re doing Ambrose Bierce again because he works very well for us. We’re finding stories that are chilling, and not so much horrific.”
While there have been dance performances in previous Phantasmagoria productions, DiDonna noted that this year, “We’ve added more dance and there will be more dance than usual. And we’ve got two aerial pieces this year. We’re doing one thing we’ve never done before, and that’s a story as a dance. That’s a fascinating one, and it’s been a wonderful challenge.
“So there are some new things, and some new approaches to story telling, especially with that dance,” he added.
In addition to launching the latest production, some of the Phantasmagoria troop members have been busy up the road, in Altamonte Springs, helping to entertain audiences going into the haunted field known as A Petrified Forest, which is at 1360 E. Altamonte Drive in Altamonte Springs, and has become one of the highest rated Halloween attractions in Central Florida.
“Right now we have a troop at Petrified Forest every night entertaining the guests,” DiDonna said. “The auxiliary troop out at Petrified Forest is having a blast. Last year they brought us out there to do some fire performances and they really enjoyed us. We developed all news characters for them, little things to entertain people with when they’re in a (main) yard, and we’re playing hosting yard kind of characters to bring people through.”
The critical acclaim given past productions encouraged DiDonna to expand the show beyond the Halloween season and host special events and appearances throughout the year.
“We have multiple events taking us to Christmas,” he said. “We’re adding new members and training new members, and we have photographers and artists and dancers who we’ve collaborated with and we’ve kept that relationship going. It’s just constantly growing, and it’s all wonderful. We’ve been nonstop since the last show. We haven’t had a week off. That has been exhausting but wonderful, that continued work we’re doing.”
“Phantasmagoria VII” will feature the familiar “Phantastical” dance, stage combat, large scale puppetry, aerial performances and their familiar haunting, macabre storytelling, which will also include stories from Oscar Wilde, M.R. James, and Arabic folklore.
The production was written and directed by DiDonna, with co-direction by Seth Kubersky and Kevin G. Becker, and choreography by Mila Makarova and Serafina Schiano, fight direction by Bill Warriner, and new, original music and soundscapes by Les Caulfield and Tod Kimbro.
General admission tickets are $15-$25 with special VIP admission tickets from $25-$35, which include Pre-Seating, a VIP post show performance, a photo op and more. Information on ticketing is available at www.PhantasmagoriaOrlando.com or www.facebook.com/PhantasmagoriaOrlando.
To learn more, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..