ORLANDO — Phantasmagoria.
If you hear that word in Orlando, it’s likely to mean something special, something unique, to a whole lot of city residents. And the first thing they’re likely to note in their minds is that it must be Halloween season.
“Phantasmagoria” is the long-running series of theatrical shows that have been performed every October for nearly a decade. The show, created by writer, director and actor John DiDonna, features a troop of 40 performers who entertain audiences with circus-like tricks while also recreating eerie tales of terror from the vaults of classic literature. The shows offer a unique mix: dance, music, large-scale puppetry, and acrobatics. Classic authors like Charles Dickens, Edgar Allan Poe, H.P. Lovecraft and Mary Shelley have all been given their due by the Phantasmagoria troupe.
There is also a traditional VIP event after each show, where audiences who purchase the VIP tickets can see some extra neat tricks being done by the performers.
The series has become so successful that it’s also been performed at the Orlando International Fringe Theater Festival, and DiDonna has also taken it out on the road, with shows in Atlanta, Baltimore, and other cities.
And not surprisingly, now that it’s October, “Phantasmagoria VIII: The Chains of Fire” is arriving right on schedule.
And DiDonna, who has written, directed and acted in each production, is thrilled to now be bringing the eighth installment to Orlando area audiences, with Halloween just a few weeks away.
So Freeline Media eagerly reached out to DiDonna to learn more about the production that opens, appropriately enough, on Friday the 13th.
Freeline Media: You’ve been creating Phantasmagoria shows for nearly a decade now. How is this year’s production compare to your original concept you had of what the show would be like?
John DiDonna: It feels amazing to keep the troupe together like this. We are actually in our eighth year of production – so just under a decade – and we keep adding and adding. When we first started there was so much imagery in my brain, and I think that is all there — but with so much more.
Each step of the way, this show has developed. If you asked me eight years ago, would we be performing for audiences as large as 2,600 and touring the show, I would not have even known. And each cast member brings new things to the show. We have developed children’s shows, comedy, sideshows, dark horror – and all have been influenced by the people involved.
FM: We live in troubled times, when the mere mention of Charlottesville and Vegas conjure up recent tragedies in our minds. Do you think the writers of classic horror literature were also reflecting on their troubled times?
JD: Absolutely. Horror comes from within . . . our own fears, our own dreams . . . our own monsters. They reflect the doubts and dreams of any particular era. Look at “Phantasmagoria VIII” – we are using very literature-influenced pieces this year, and one of them in particular was written in response to an historical even occurring right at that time.
FM: With so many horrific incidents happening in our world today, what do you think draws people to horror in literature, films and theater?
JD: It actually releases our fears. A catharsis, if you will? People need an escape into a world, and worlds of monsters, ghosts, and the unknown are a brilliant one to escape to.
FM: What’s new with this year’s production?
JD: It is an “out of time sequence” story set in a void of Plato’s Cave. It is much more serious than usual . . . much more psychological than usual. Perhaps we are exploring inner fears more than outer fears? We go from loss of a loved one, to mental and emotional obsession, to a demon-fraught ride through the snow, to a woman’s descent into a trapped madness. We cannot wait to begin this “darker” journey!
Also our VIP show is before the show this year, not after! A great way to have fun before the show even begins.
FM: From here, where does the Phantasmagoria crew go next?
JD: Oh dear Zeus! Hah! We continue with some great stuff. All the special events we do on a continual basis, plus this Christmas Season we are doing our own version of “A Christmas Carol, A Ghost Story of Christmas” which premiers in December in Orlando, Deland, Eustis and Sanford.
Then next year we are collaborating with CFCA on a symphony of Tod Kimbro’s music, new music, and our stories, as well as a brand new type of Phantasmagoria “experience” for “Phantasmagoria IX.” Also, we’re looking to continue collaborating and have had some amazing meetings with local groups on ways to work together.
Early in the year we begin a series of educational workshops in partnership with the Wayne Densch Performing Arts Center so . . it is going to be Phantasmagoria 24 hours a day 7 days a week, we hope!
“Phantasmagoria VIII: The Chains of Fire” runs Oct. 13 through Nov. 4 at the John & Rita Lowndes Shakespeare Center, 812 E Rollins St, Orlando, in Loch Haven Park. For tickets, visit Orlando At Play. Ad DiDonna noted, the VIP event will be held before the start of the show this year.
The production is being presented by Phantasmagoria Orlando/DiDonna Productions, with all new stories of terror, “Phantastical” dance, explosive stage combat, large scale puppetry, aerial performance and haunting storytelling.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright and author of the terrifying book “Bloody Rabbit”. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com..