Gather round, all brave souls, for the nightmare that await you at “Phantasmagoria II.”

The performers in "Phantasmagoria II" slowly rise at the start of the show. (Photo by Michael Freeman).

ORLANDO — Imagine a troupe of circus performers who arrive by caravan in your community. They’re ready and eager to charm and entertain you in a variety of ways.
They play the violin, so delicately, so intimately. They sing for you, then dance, and seek to make you laugh and smile.
And then … in the darkness of the theater, it happens. But it occurs quite slowly, so that it takes you by surprise. You’re sitting there comfortably in the pitch black, when your senses perk up, and you realize it’s happening …. a cold hand is reaching over and touching the back of your neck …
Or maybe an obscure figure is moving closer to you … grabbing you by the throat as you scream –
If you’ve ever gotten together with a group of friends, and sat around telling one another ghost stories, you might recognize that feeling. No one literally touches your neck or grabs your throat, but a really creepy ghost story provides the same sensation: you start with the ordinary, the commonplace, and then something odd slowly insinuates itself into the tale. The twists become more and more ominous. And then — wham! It grabs you by the throat.
The sheer pleasure of watching “Phantasmagoria II,” director John DiDonna’s second installment of his Halloween mix of dance, storytelling, humor and puppetry, is that Gotcha! feeling you continuously experience while sitting there inside the cozy comfort of the Mandell Theater, surrounded by other patrons and perhaps some friendly faces, and you’re so intimately close to the performers that they sometimes walk right up to you and start speaking directly to you …. and yet they still have the ability to make you feel like that clammy hand is tip-toeing along the back of your neck …
… scared you yet? … te he he …The Halloween season was never so much fun.
“Phantasmagoria II” opens with the cast lying on the floor of the black box theater, each one covered by a black sheet. They slowly rise, as if shaking off a 100-year-old sleep, and cast aside their slumber to do what they were invented to do: entertain.

The Empty Spaces Theatre Co. is producing "Phantasmagoria II."

And like a brilliant circus troop, they set out aggressively to do just that — singing for you, dancing, clowning around, being acrobatic. It truly does feel like a multi-talented circus that wants nothing more than to grip you and hold on to you, hypnotically, so you could never dare take your eyes off them, as you ponder what unexpected thing they might do next.
Then comes their true raison d’etre: to tell you some ghost stories. They recreate several classic tales of terror, including Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and “The Woman of the Snow,” a Japanese ghost epic about a wood cutter and his father lost in a blinding snowstorm, and visited — saved? — by a mysterious woman in white …
One of the reasons “Phantasmagoria II” casts such a bewitching spell over the audience is the ingenious way the performers recreates that feeling of folks telling ghost stories around the campfire when you’re all alone in the woods. Using virtually no props or sets, you have only the performers acting out those horror tales as the narrator leads them on. And, as DiDonna did so creatively in the 2010 version of this show, the scariest things fly at us as life-sized puppets: the mysterious figure known as the Red Death who enters the castle of Prospero, the portrait of a hideously deformed Dorian Gray, the ghostly Japanese woman in white. There are other creatures as well, including the most terrifying of them all, which is conveniently saved for the show’s dynamic and ferocious ending.
The interaction between the actors and the puppets, the mix of screams and haunting wails, the dim lighting that leaves you feeling just a tad bit vulnerable and anxious …. it all gives “Phantasmagoria II” a surreal look, almost like you walked into a theater but along the way accidentally stumbled into someone else’s nightmare. You can’t escape, so all you can do is watch this chilling nightmare unfold ….
…. right before your eyes.
Using a superb cast of storytellers, dancers, and singers, “Phantasmagoria II” is one of the most fiendishly clever nightmares you’ll ever tumble into. And when it’s over and the lights have come up, and you’re no longer sitting in the eerie darkness, you’ll likely to remember just how invigorating and stimulating brilliant theater truly can be.

“Phantasmagoria II” plays now through Sunday, Oct. 30 on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays at 8:30 p.m. There will also be a special performance on Monday, Oct. 24 at the same time.
Tickets are $20 for general admission and $15 for students and seniors. The performances are at the Mandell Theater at the Lowndes Shakespeare Center at Loch Haven Park in downtown Orlando. For tickets or more information, call 407-328-9005 , or buy tickets online at Redchairproject.com.

Contact us at FreelineOrlando@Gmail.com.

At the Breakthrough Theatre, a cast of very likeable people just looking to be normal.

The cast of "Looking for Normal" invites us into their humble little home at the Breakthrough Theatre. (Photo by Michael Freeman).

WINTER PARK – Imagine you’ve been putting it off for a very long time, but suddenly you feel you simply can’t hold off that journey any more. It’s something you’ve been avoiding, because you were afraid of taking such a huge leap of faith. But deep inside, you’ve known for a very long while that it’s only a matter of time before you have to start walking down that path.
In the opening scene of Jane Anderson’s play “Looking for Normal,” Roy and Irma have been married for 24 years, but they’ve hit a rough patch and have turned to their local minister, Rev. Muncie, for assistance. Roy seems depressed, and agitated. He still loves Irma, he insists, but there are problems he’s dealing with.
The reverend smiles, and asks Irma to leave the room. It seems pretty obvious to him what the matter is: Roy, now in his 50s, is likely feeling the affects of aging and has lost some of his sex drive, a common problem that the minister hears frequently from other married men. He assures Roy that if this is the problem, it’s absolutely nothing to be ashamed of.
But as it turns out, the minister is way off. Roy’s problem has nothing to do with a lower sex drive. His problem is that for decades, the boy who grew up the only son in a family where he had several sisters always felt like something wasn’t quite right about himself. He hid all this deep within himself for years, too embarrassed to talk about it with anyone. The truth is, Roy always felt like a woman trapped inside a man’s body, and he no longer wants to struggle with this challenge. He’s made a major decision: to get a sex change, and finally become the woman he always believes he was meant to be.
Needless to say, for both the small town reverend and for Roy’s loyal wife Irma, it’s the start of a long, bumpy, totally confusing journey. Of all the problems Roy could have been struggling with, this one was about the last thing they had expected.
One of the interesting things about Anderson’s play is that while it sometimes screams out “Hot button social issue,” it does so in a calm and measured way. It doesn’t always work smoothly. Anderson creates a series of short vignettes that follow how Irma and Roy, and their children, struggle to cope with the drastic changes that Roy’s decision has brought into their lives.
Some of it is done quite beautifully, including Irma’s decision early on to ask Roy to move out of the house now that he wants to become a woman, only to find herself rallying to his side when he becomes scared, depressed and suicidal.
At other times, though, Anderson’s use of a kind of true-life situational humor feels forced, including scenes where Roy becomes cranky and irritable while undergoing hormone treatments, or when he and his wife and daughter talk about his newly emerging breasts. At moments like this, Anderson moves shakily between feeling like a Lifetime channel movie of the week and “Glen and Glenda.”
On the other hand, it’s hard not to watch this play without understanding this is not some wild scenario, but one that’s been reflected in some recent high profile news stories — including one here in Florida. In February 2007, City Commissioners in the town of Largo near Tampa voted to fire its city manager, Steve Stanton, after he announced that he planned to get a sex change operation. Stanton, 48 at the time, said he was receiving hormone therapy in preparation for surgery and would undergo a “gender assignment” to become Susan Stanton.
You can also look at the recent appearance of Chaz Bono — born a girl named Chastity to celebrates Sonny and Cher Bono before undergoing a similar operation — on “Dancing With The Stars,” and some of the controversy he generated, to know this is a situation that impacts people and their families every day.
One of the play’s great strengths, in terms of the production at the Breakthrough Theatre of Winter Park, is the absolutely superb performances by actors who truly do bring these simple characters to life.  Every time Anderson’s play starts to make them seem like an archetype – Roy the real nice guy who deserves support in his quest to be a woman, Irma the nice woman who is just so confused about how to handle this – the actors breathe a remarkable amount of poignance and sincerity into every word they speak.
Tim Bass is convincing as Roy because of the way this 50-something man ranges between acting like an adult who has finally decided to gain control of his life, to looking like an excited kid who has dreamed for years of going to Disney World and is finally getting there. Sometimes as he walks that balance between sober minded adult ready to change his sex, to kid finally getting his cherished toy, Roy stumbles through an awful lot of genuine fear and anxiety.  His parents are conservative, and so is his church, and his wife can’t figure out how they can maintain a marriage as two women. It’s complicated, and nobody know where it’s going to lead them.
Cira Larkin is just as good as the stable, loyal wife who was so happy with things as they were, but doesn’t think she deserved this crazy curve ball that life tossed her way. At time angry, frustrated, and determined to keep her family together, she has few more wonderful moments than when Irma takes it upon herself to start picking out Roy’s new clothes as a woman, knowing he’s going to make a lousy choice if he selects them himself.
“Looking for Normal” manages to transcend its initial TV movie of the week feel, thanks to an abundance of humor that doesn’t feel forced or campy, while the cast is eloquent and real. They’re the kind of people you end up caring deeply about – and you start to root for them to find a way to make all this work.
It’s to Breakthrough Theatre’s great credit that by the end, it’s been such a moving experience to share that journey with them.

Contact us at FreelineOrlando@Gmail.com.

Humor, chills, and beautiful choreography … welcome to the Vampire’s Ball.

Robert Hill, artistic director of the Orlando Ballet, introduces a sneak preview to their upcoming production, "Vampire's Ball." (Photo by Michael Freeman).

ORLANDO – A mad scientist hovers over the eerie looking potions in his laboratory, as a maniacal grin spreads across his face. He raises a massive syringe, then moves toward the victim lying helplessly on a table, in order to inject him with it ….
… and then scientist and victim rise, and …. begin to dance ….
…. ballet, to be precise – and very artistically choreographed ballet moves, at that.
“The doctor sort of experiments with human DNA,” said Robert Hill. “Sometimes it works, and sometimes it doesn’t.”
What Hill is hoping definitely does work out is “Vampire’s Ball,” the Halloween-themed production being put on by the Orlando Ballet, with performances on Friday, Oct. 21 through Sunday, Oct. 23 at the Bob Carr Performing Arts Centre.
“Vampire’s Ball,” an original piece choreographed and staged by Hill, the artistic director of the Orlando Ballet, and it’s meant to be a marriage between ballet and one of popular culture’s favorite themes around this time of year: the tale of terror.
“It’s a very popular theme, obviously, and there are a lot of ways you can handle it – haunted houses and so on,” he said.
This morning, the Orlando Ballet opened its doors at 1111 N. Orange Ave. in downtown Orlando to the local media, for a sneak preview of the production, which is still in the rehearsal phase.
“We do the media preview prior to the public performance,” said Treva J. Marshall, president of TJM Communications Inc., which handles public relations for the Orlando Ballet. “We’re very pleased to talk to you today about the Vampire’s Ball.”
Hill said the idea for this unique production dates back to 2010.
“We thought of the concept last year sometime when we were planning for the new season,” he said. “I think the idea was to create something that’s very interesting on a dance level.”
Employing a large cast of dancers, the show not only has the mad scientist and his monstrous creation, but also a vampire in a black and purple cape, a handsome young couple who wanders into the wrong place at the wrong time, and, as the title indicates, an actual vampire’s ball that the young female victim accidentally wanders into.
During the production, the young couple will perform a romantic dance together in the woods, but as they finish, Hill cautioned that “Of course, the vampires come in and they get abducted and carried away.”

The cast of "Vampire's Ball" poses for a group photo at the Orlando Ballet. (Photo by Michael Freeman).

The production employs music by Midnight Syndicate, a company that produces Halloween-themed music, and the Orlando Ballet has even gone ahead and ordered special vampire teeth, “and ones that fit,” Hill said. “We’re going to put blood on them, too.”
Hill said the production would be a mix of humor, scares, and the kind of dancing that Orlando Ballet has become so highly acclaimed for.
“There are several quite hopefully humorous moments, and I’m poking fun at the horror themes,” he said. “I don’t want this to be taken too, too seriously, but I really want the dancing to be an important part of it – well danced. This is a dance company, after all.”
Hill said he was also grateful to the Orlando Ballet for allowing him to run artistically with such an unusual project as this one.
“I really appreciate how much they allow me to do what I want to do,” he said. “They allow me to indulge myself to the nth degree, to do what I want to do artistically.”
To learn more, call 407-426-1733 or the box office at 407-426-1739, or log on to Orlandoballetschool.org.

Contact us at FreelineOrlando@Gmail.com.

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