ORLANDO — For years, theater director John DiDonna has been a familiar face to Orlando area audiences for his annual productions of Charles Dickens’ holiday classic “A Christmas Carol,” known as “Dickens By Candlelight” and featuring a three-member cast that played all the roles — by candlelight.
DiDonna is back this year with a new production of “A Christmas Carol” — but this time, he’s taking it in a new direction, by merging Dickens with Phantasmagoria, his long-running series about a circus-like troupe of performers who reenact chilling tales of terror.
Opening this Friday is “Phantasmagoria’s A Christ Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas” at the Lowndes Shakespeare Center. This is an opportunity to celebrate the season as Phantasmagoria presents its own unique adaptation of the Dickens’ classic, featuring not just Tiny Tim and Scrooge, but also dance, puppetry, projections, music and the recreation of one of the most famous ghost stories of all time.
Freeline Media sat down with John to find out what his new production, which opens on Friday, is all about.
Freeline Media: You’ve had a long, successful run around Christmas time doing the production “Dickens By Candlelight.” How did “A Christmas Carol” get merged this year with the troop at Phantasmagoria?
John DiDonna: Hah! I loved doing ‘Dickens by Candlelight’! After this past year we (the cast) all looked at each other and went ‘My God, we have done this for 8 years straight!’ and we needed a little break. I personally had no intentions of doing anything at Christmas this year other than celebrating with my family. Then, over the summer, the mention that I was always considering ‘Christmas Carol’ for the troupe came up and within days our first theater wanted to book us. So I asked at another theater, and the same response, so it built and built till now we are performing in multiple cities with the show. The chance to play Orlando at our home in the Lowndes Shakespeare Center, and then re-visit the beautiful Athens Theatre in Deland as well as the Historic State Theater in Eustis was delicious. The welcome addition of the Wayne Densch in Sanford was the icing on the cake.
FM: Past productions of Phantasmagoria have certainly recreated a number of chilling short stories by Charles Dickens. Yet he doesn’t seem known for writing horror fiction. How did you discover those works?
JD: The entire process of Phantasmagoria begins a year before each show, going down a rabbit hole of Victorian literature, horror tales, legends, myths, etc. You think you are following one, then you veer off into another story. It is amazing to take that journey each year. Sometimes stories are found in the unlikeliest of places. My favorite was finding a fragment of a poem in a medical book from the 1700’s. And sometimes – as in ‘Christmas Carol’ – it is something you have known your whole life. For example, I have always thought ‘Plato’s Cave’ was terrifying, but until this past year with ‘Chains of Fire’ had not found that way in to turn it into a work of Phantasmagoria-style horror.
FM: “A Christmas Carol” seems to lend itself to the Phantasmagoria approach, with ghosts galore; but the story is more often portrayed in a sentimental way. How do you balance those two?
JD: I think what makes Phantasmagoria unique is our ability to balance the horrific with the whimsical with the sincere. We are also celebrating the fact we can tell a story that has so much celebration and make it tension-filled at the same time. Dickens does this himself, though truly in the original work. The tale is terrifying at some points, heart rending at others, joyful at other times. This is what we as a troupe are exploring in the show!
FM: Are you considering making this version an annual event, similar to the annual Phantasmagoria productions around Halloween?
JD: Well, we never knew Phantasmagoria was going to be a yearly event and then it became one — so one never knows! As we always say, if the tale needs to be told … “Once a story is chosen, it must be told. Once a story has begun, it must be finished” … so we shall see! I would love to see that happen, and if it does, we will approach it in the same way we approach our other works. Even if we perform it more than once, we “rediscover” and re-imagine it for the second time. As long as the story resonates for us and for the audience, then it is very well worth telling.
FM: Christmas time and scares — Dickens got the idea. What will Phantasmagoria bring to it as well?
JD: Our sense of ensemble is working very well in this telling of the tale, and we have brought in some new players for this one that we are having a blast with. The character ‘Isabella’ will be taking to the stage for the first time in over a year, a new storyteller named ‘Kaden’ will be joining the troupe, and some of our newer members will be hitting the main stage for the first time.
We hope to bring true chills to the story, ones that have existed always but are played down sometimes … but the tale itself is about all of us. The journey of women and men on this globe of ours – and we hope to make that journey we follow through Scrooge touch all of us.
The Phantasmagoria style of puppetry is there, of course, with three major puppets and some minor ones as well, and of course our unique storytelling style lends itself to the telling of this tale as does all our movement technique.
We hope in the long run – as we always do – that an audience can leave feeling they have seen a tale, maybe even one they know so well in an amazingly new light and way. “And may that be said of us, and all of us. And so as Tiny Tim observed ‘God Bless us everyone!’ ”
John DiDonna is the creator, director and writer of the Phantasmagoria Orlando Program. “Phantasmagoria’s A Christmas Carol” runs Dec. 15-16 at 8 p.m. and Dec. 17 at 2 p.m. at the Lowndes Shakespeare Center in Loch Haven Park, Orlando. To purchase tickets, visit Orlando At Play or call the Phantasmagoria Hotline at 407-476-5121. Tickets are $15 for students, seniors and members of the military, and $25 general admission.
Upcoming performances include:
* In Deland at the Athens Theater on Dec. 21 at 7:30 p.m., tickets are $20-$24. Purchase tickets online at Athens Theater or call 386-736-1500.
* In Eustis at the Bay Street Players Theater on Dec. 22 at 8 p.m. Tickets are $20. Purchase tickets online at Bay Street Players or call 352-357-7777.
* In Sanford at the Wayne Densch Performing Arts Center on Dec. 23 at 2 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $18 for youth and $22 for general admission. Purchase tickets online at Wayne Densch Performing Arts Center or call 407-321-8111.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the terrifying book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..