SANFORD — The room is clearly in darkness, but there are candles everywhere — not to mention some rather eerie looking puppets sitting in the back, possibly invited to serve as the local audience. And that’s when a familiar face steps in front of the camera to say, in his distinctive voice, “Dear friends, welcome to our Sunday evening.”
For nearly a decade, John DiDonna has been entertaining audiences as the writer, director, and lead performer of Phantasmagoria, the circus-like troop of actors, singers, dancers and acrobatic performers who have been recreating ghoulish, and often times comical, tales of terror from the classic vaults of literature. And John and his wife, Dion Leonard DiDonna, were once again live to entertain the Phantasmagoria audience. The only thing they didn’t have was an auditorium and stage to perform on.
Amidst the coronavirus pandemic, which last March shut down community theaters, entertainment venues like the Amway Center and even theme parks like Walt Disney World, DiDonna opted to follow a trend that a growing number of other community theater groups like Mad Cow Theatre and Orlando Shakes are doing: take the shows to audiences on a virtual level. For months now, the DiDonnas have been maintaining a connection to their audience through Phantasmagoria Night Live, held every Sunday at 8 p.m., and now headed for Episode 19 this weekend.
“I think we’ve had more episodes than ‘Friends,’ ” John quipped at the start of Episode #15.
What Does Phantasmagoria Do Live?
Horror literature has been Phantasmagoria’s raison d’etre, and during their Halloween season shows at the Lowndes Shakespeare Center (and during performances at Orlando Fringe as well), they’re recreated short stories (by the likes of Edgar Allan Poe and Charles Dickens), novels (Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein) and even poems. In Episode 15, John alludes to Shelley and her friendship to the poet Lord Bryon as he reads his poem “Darkness,” about the apocalyptic end of the world — a poem that John noted was written in July 1816, which became known as the Year Without a Summer after Mount Tombora erupted in the Dutch East Indies and cast enough Sulphur into the atmosphere to cast a pall of darkness over northern Europe.
He will also read the more comical poems “The Ghost” and “Mary’s Ghost” by Thomas Hood.
Another key aspect of the Phantasmagoria stage shows has been music, and in Episode 15, John put on his safety-first mask and led the camera to another room in his home, where his live musical guests Rexine and Gregory were on hand to perform some sizzling renditions of classic blues songs like “I Put A Spell On You” and “St. Louis Blues.” Now that is a key reason for hosting these live Phantasmagoria performances, John noted.
“We enjoy it immensely because we get to enjoy immense talent,” he said.
And they concluded with Lady Cimorene (Dion) leading the camera outside to their front steps, where, to the accompaniment of Fire Dance music by The Cog Is Dead, she performed some visually stunning dance moves with fire sticks in hand, lighting up the night sky.
Where Can You See Phantasmagoria Night Live?
At a time when more and more people are spending time at home as a safety precaution, and going online far more often, Phantasmagoria Night Live provides a highly enjoyable vehicle to escape for a while (the episode was about 40 minutes long). It was all done live without a hitch, and provided a sublime mix of literature, music and dance (fire included). And it’s easy to tune in to the live broadcasts: all you need to do is click on Phantasmagoria’s Facebook page on Sunday evenings.
For those of you like me who absolutely love catching live theater, live virtual performances are also an enjoying — and safe — way to continue connecting with your favorite performers, and in my view, John DiDonna is setting a great standard for how to do it right.
Episode 19 of Phantasmagoria Night Live will be broadcast live on Sunday, July 26 at 8 p.m.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright, and author of the book When I Woke Up, You Were All Dead. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com.