ORLANDO — If it’s October, it’s a safe bet that Central Florida will do its best to get people into the Halloween spirit. It’s hard to imagine the month going by without Halloween Horror Nights at Universal Studios, for example, or the availability in Altamonte Springs of A Petrified Forest, the watch-out-behind-you field of marauding ghouls.
This year, Petrified Forest also features some special guests: the performers from Phantasmagoria, the long-running spooky series about a circus-like troop who entertain audiences by recreating tales of terror from the pages of great literature.
And while it’s fun to see the Phantasmagoria group at A Petrified Forest, it wouldn’t be a true Halloween without catching their latest production, which recently opened at the Lowndes Shakespeare Center and continues through, appropriately enough, Halloween night.
This year, there are a host of eerie visual delights — the dying man hypnotized into a long, seemingly endless sleep, the cats that warn a little girl not to play with matches, the ghostly figure that emerges in a painting, the mausoleum-like structure in a cemetery that beckons warily for outsiders to come on in, the dark woods harboring something completely terrifying. Phantasmagoria once again offers a sophisticated and well-designed update of the “ghost stories around the campfire” concept.
The series, now in its seventh year, was written and created by John DiDonna, who also plays one of the main storytellers, Byron. His original concept — to have the performers dip into the vaults of often long-forgotten tales of the macabre and the supernatural, still works well, in part because of the clever mix of horror and humor that go into some of these tales. In this production, the performers select their stories by drawing tarot cards, and the first tale sets the mood nicely: Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Facts in the Case of M. Valdemar,” a short story about a mesmerist who puts a man in a suspended hypnotic state — right at the moment of death. It works …. for a while, anyway. Not surprisingly, there are consequences for his success.
Some of the stories have more comical elements, including several short German tales about the punishments that come to children who disobey their parents — woe to the poor boy who ignores his mother’s warning about sucking his thumb, or the little girl who doesn’t listen to her cats when she discovers a box of matches. The “children” in this case are played by puppets, a trademark of the Phantasmagoria series.
Other tales, including ones by H.P. Lovecraft and Ambrose Bierce, are closer to let-out-a-loud-scream horror, tapping effectively into the fear of being in a strange place, in the dark, and knowing, fully knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt, that something truly horrific is close by.
As usual, the production also demonstrates the rich talent of the cast — at not just acting, but also the dancers, and the acrobats who perform some visually stunning feats. Phantasmagoria may have some creepy tales to get audiences into the Halloween mood, but like any good circus they entertain using a diverse mix of visual delights.
It’s all good fun, a smart and classy way to get into the spirit of the Halloween season. The performers, as usual, are first-rate, and the mix of actors on a mainly bare stage with graphics projected against the back wall work quite nicely. There’s a reason this series keeps going strong in its seventh year.
“Phantasmagoria VII” runs through Halloween night in the Mandell Theater at the Lowndes Shakespeare Center, 812 E. Rollins St. Performances start at 8 p.m. There will also be a special 100th Mainstage Touring Show on Halloween night.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..