ORLANDO — At first glance, one might conclude that the troop of performers known as Phantasmagoria will have a rough time peeling past the competition this Halloween season.
After all, the collection of actors, dancers, singers and acrobats who recreate classic tales of terror are presenting the audience with a high degree of sophistication — in an era when the competition likes sticking innocent wanderers into a dark area with the understanding that, oh, maybe a flesh-eating zombie, knife-wielding serial killer or ghostly apparition may be lurking around the corner ready to — POUNCE!
Phantasmagoria, on the other hand, does not traffic much in Um, hey honey, there’s a dude with a chainsaw running at you …. So in the era of rapid fire video games that up the gore quotient and have a new blood-soaked zombie racing for you every split second, does Phantasmagoria risk becoming the ugly red-headed step-child of the fear market?
Well, hold on there. Don’t jump to any hasty conclusions.
Oversaturation can be a joy-killer — who hasn’t discovered a favorite restaurant and then gotten tired of repeatedly wolfing down the same meals over and over? Yes, there’s an audience that initially thrills to the Look! Run! approach of the “zombies/serial killers/killer clowns chasing you” approach, that instant adrenalin rush that puts you in the nasty video games for real. But ask yourself this: once the third zombie actor jumps out at you and the initial shock has worn off, who isn’t thinking to themselves, Man, dude, you suck compared to the last one?
And beyond that first AHHHHH! rush of something jumping out at you in the dark, is there a context to it all? Does a flesh-munching zombie aiming its teeth at our skin really say something about our inner fears today?
For those who don’t enjoy horror, it always seems baffling that people would pay good money to feel terrified — although it’s easy to explain to them that it’s not much different than a fast-moving roller coaster ride. True fans of horror know that if you dig below the surface, there is often a context to our anxieties. Genuine students of horror, for example, have noted the rise of the serial killer in American cinema in the late 1970s, replacing Frankenstein and Dracula. Why did the Friday the 13th series work so effectively on audiences? Because the 1970s gave us a long list of horrors — stagflation, Vietnam, Watergate, long gas lines, the Iran hostage crisis — that made the entire world seem like it was spinning out of control. The serial killer movies, so the scholars say, epitomized our fears that we were suddenly in a dark place where age-old institutions had collapsed, and instead we were in the dark, being stalked by sinister forces, and we were highly vulnerable. Sure, Jason jumping out of the lake doesn’t explicitly reference inflation woes, but it did tap into a more subliminal level of fear that we were losing our grip on an orderly society.
Which brings us back to Phantasmagoria, the series created by Orlando’s own John DiDonna, which follows a group of circus-like performers who recreate classic tales of terror for the audience. I will submit for your consideration that the series holds a more effective, and lasting, nightmarish grip on your psyche precisely because it doesn’t attempt to do what the Is that a zombie coming toward you scare factories hash out. The impulse here is to lure you in more slowly, insidiously.
The 2015 installation of the series (now in its sixth year), “Phantasmagora VI: Darkness Returns,” does have a context, and more than a few thoughts about our fears today. The production at the Lowndes Shakespeare Center opens on a battlefield in Germany in the final days of World War I — a literal graveyard of the death, a visualization of the appalling destruction of that war. Our performers find refuge from the bombs dropping outside in a House of Magic, where they proceed to recreate horror stories from not only past decades, but past centuries. In each case, though, there is a sly reminder that the authors fully understood that no matter how polite our society operates on the surface, there’s a vile, nasty underbelly lurking behind closed doors.
A good example is the first story they recreate, Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Black Cat.” Poe never does provide us with a clear explanation for why the proper gentleman in the story, who loves his wife and his favorite cat — would become gripped by an inner rage that eventually, in a moment of inexplicable rage, drives him to pluck out his beloved cat’s eye, and later hang the poor creature from a tree. Is it mental illness? Alcohol? Or just a hideous degree of sadism that creeps inside him? We’re not sure. But as the man’s inner rage begins to get directed toward his wife, we have a grim mirror image of a society where anger consumes — and explodes unexpectedly in shocking violence. Anyone who has read the headlines this past week doesn’t need to put that in any modern context.
The performers take us through some unique and long-forgotten horror pieces, from short stories and poems to one classic story that even attracted the attention of Walt Disney Studios. To single out one other tale, the performers do an excellent job in recreating the classic poem “Beowolf,” using large-scale puppetry to show the invasion of the monster Grendel on the terrified village — again, the idea of people banding together to defend themselves from an invading outside force has, since 9-11, not needed to be put into any context, either.
As usual, Phantasmagoria is high on style — the performers do some stunning acrobatics and dances, and their sense of pace and timing for the horror tales is perfect.
This is also a reminder of the power and potency of a more sophisticated form of horror — not the easy jump-scare, but the tales that hold a mirror to the inner fears we have now, and remind us that those long-dead authors knew a thing or two about just how horrific a civil society can become.
“Phantasmagoria VI: Darkness Returns” is being performed at the Mandell Theater at the Lowndes Shakespeare Center at 812 E. Rollins St. in Orlando. Shows are at 8 p.m. on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays, with Monday night performances on Oct. 19 and 26, through Halloween night.
Tickets are $25 general admissions, and $15 for students, seniors and the military — and $35 for VIP tickets. Consider going the VIP route, because it includes a special performance after the main show that, no pun intended, can truly be called “hot stuff.”
For tickets, call 407-328-9005 or visit Orlando At Play.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..