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.
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.
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