ORLANDO – It’s late at night on Christmas Eve, and an elderly Norwegian woman, Adelina, hears the village church bells ring. She’s ready to leave behind the warm fire, and on this cold night walk from her home to the nearby church for midnight mass.
Now, imagine you arrive at the church, as Adelina does, and you sit down in the pews, surrounded by other people. Then you notice the church is getting colder and colder …. and the people around you are sitting perfectly motionless, looking pale. Would you start to get an eerie feeling that something is not right?
Would you begin to tremble ….
…. and scream?
October brings out a lot of traditions – pumpkins decorating front lawns, fall wreaths on the door, Halloween decorations in the yard, candy apples in the stores. Ghosts, of course, can be a favorite topic year-round, but they never seem quite so popular as around this time of year.
Which brings us to another happy tradition – for the past five years – of John DiDonna’s “Phantasmagoria,” his horror anthology series that’s been performed in Orlando since 2010.
For the uninitiated, this series follows the otherworldly Phantasmagoria troupe, a circus-like group of storytellers, dancers, singers and acrobats, who collect classic tales of terror from the great works of literature, and recreate those often eerie and chilling tales.
The year’s entry in the series is “Phantasmagoria V: Death Comes for All,” which is now being produced at the Orlando Shakespeare Theater through Halloween night. With a lot of local entities looking to scare you silly, you might ask, does this one rise to the occasion?
Last year’s production, “Phantasmagoria IV: Hell Math Risen,” upped the ante by introducing the Brothers Grimm to the Phantasmagoria gang, and while the Brothers are back for this latest installment, it also has an effectively diverse collection of stories this time – and the quiet dread of Adelina’s grim moments in that Norwegian church was one of the play’s highlights.
It was taken from the Norwegian folk tale “The Midnight Mass of the Dead,” about a woman who discovers, to her utter horror, that the church she has wandered into at midnight is inhabited only by …. villagers who have already died.
In the era of faster-than-lightning horror video games, this tale is so beautiful done, as it builds in intensity, that it’s a reminder of how artful a subtle form of horror is, especially for those overwhelmed by the special effects-laden approach to horror in cinema today.
There’s a similar approach of slow-building dread in their recreation of Edgar Allan Poe’s classic tale, “The Pit And The Pendulum.” It’s hard to go wrong when your tale is set during the Spanish Inquisition, and the narrator has been condemned to death – and finds himself in a pitch-black, tomb-like cell. He passes out, then awakes to find he’s tied to a wooden board, and the tiny bit of light in the cell shows a painted picture of Father Time above him, and hanging from that figure is a gigantic pendulum swinging slowly back and forth …..
Both segments are a fine reminder of the lost art of the horror short story – it doesn’t always have to be Stephen King’s “It” at 1,000 pages to hold your attention, and grip you. To balance out the fun, though, the Phantasmagoria troupe also gives us Charles Dickens’ “Captain Murderer,” kind of an early “Sweeney Todd” that offers a delightful mix of black humor and gory subject matter, all played to comedic perfection by DiDonna himself.
There’s also atmosphere to spare in their recreation of H.P. Lovecraft’s quietly menacing story “The Cats of Ulthar,” about how the town of Ulthar came to pass a law forbidding the killing of cats. If you want to learn the motive, here’s a hint: an old couple who live out in the woods, and capture cats from the town …
The performers have a lot of fun with this latest installment in the series, from actors like Stephen Lima and Samantha O’Hare to dancers Mila Makarova, Gina Makarova and Dion Leonhard. New to the production this year is actor J.D. Rees, who plays the mysterious, silent and often-terrified “No One.”
The superior selection of ghostly tales helps keep this series from seeming formulaic, and the range of visual spectacle – gigantic marionette monsters, acrobatic tricks, and the sly sense of menace – keeps it lively. At times it’s so fun — it’s scary.
Tickets are $15-$20, with VIP tickets available at an additional cost. Reservations can be made by calling 407-328-9005, or through credit card orders online at Orlando at Play.
Performances are Friday, Saturday and Sunday at 8:30 p.m., with special Monday shows on Oct. 20 and Oct. 27, in the Mandell Theatre at the Lowndes Shakespeare Center in Loch Haven Park in Orlando.
Contact Freeline Media at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..