ORLANDO – It’s been a constant in my life for a while now: I have a complete inability to miss theater productions that include the works of Edgar Allan Poe.
It isn’t just that I love Poe’s writing. His dark, macabre, irresistibly creepy tales are so vivid in their descriptions, and conjure up so many haunting images, that I think they’re ideally suited for stage productions.
Just reading them aloud is highly effective in and of itself; if you’ve never listened to those old 1940s radio shows like “Suspense,” you’d be amazed how scary it can be to listen to a really well-written horror tale that asks you to let your imagination do the work.
So it was that I found myself immensely enjoying “Pantasmagoria’s Wickedest Tales of All,” and in particular the final segment, which recreated Poe’s classic tale of terror, “The Masque of the Red Death.”
Phantasmagoria, for the uninitiated, is the long-running group of circus-like performers who recount classic horror stories, and they’re now are presenting a sort of “Greatest Hits” production, “Phantasmagoria’s Wickedest Tales of All,” at the Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival.
Phantasmagoria and Poe were made for one another, and the troupe led by writer, director and actor John DiDonna know the critical role that atmosphere plays in a story like this one. Using images on a screen, they conjure up the agony tormenting the countryside as a black death sweeps the land, leaving the survivors in mortal fear of being the next victim.
Except, that is, for Prince Prospero, who plans to avoid the plague by hiding safely in his abbey. Then he invites other wealthy nobles to his castle for a masquerade ball, where they can revel in joy and blithely ignore the horrors beyond their walls. That is, until a mysterious figure disguised as a Red Death victim arrives ….
By now, Phantasmagoria has perfected the use of ghostly and ghastly large-scale puppetry to create their monsters, and you’d be amazed at how effective this is.
This production also recreates Charles Dickens’ “A Madman’s Manuscript” – you’ll love the grim and nasty cell that the madman ends up in – along with a creepy Hindu story, “Tale of the Churel,” and a nursery rhyme, “Gammer Gurton’s Garland.” And you won’t want to leave early and miss the ending featuring a young boy carrying a book of horror tales ….
After a decade of entertaining audiences, Phantasmagoria has become a perennial favorite in the Orlando area around Halloween time, like Universal’s Halloween Horror Nights – once the Halloween season arrives, you know both will be on the calendar.
But if Halloween Horror Nights goes for the grab-you-by-the-throat-and-scream approach (as well as possibly single handedly boosting alcohol sales among twentysomethings), Phantasmagoria is the smaller-scale version – and the one that reminds us of horror’s more sophisticated roots, where the scares built at a more measured pace, and jump out at the end of a brooding, hypnotic tale that builds slowly, and ominously.
By now, the Phantasmagoria troop has perfected their craft; this show moves at lightning speed, as if not a second should be wasted, but they continue to incorporate song, dance, and other forms of theatrics into the overall piece.
It’s nice to see also Phantasmagoria become a regular presence in May during the Fringe Festival, because just like those old “Suspense” radio programs, they’ve become masters at quietly placing that cold, dank hand on the back of your neck in that dark theater, just when you least expect it.
Catch the final performance of “Phantasmagoria’s Wickedest Tales of All” on Saturday at 11:59 p.m. in the Margeson Theater.
For tickets, visit Orlando Fringe. To learn more, visit Phantasmagoria Orlando.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the book “Koby’s New Home”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com.