Phantasmagoria XI: Plague Tales

ORLANDO — Times change, and Central Florida’s theater community has been certainly undergone some drastic changes since March due to the impact of COVID-19 social distancing that’s made live theater virtually impossible.

Virtual is the key word here, though, as a growing number of community theaters, unable to welcome audiences back into their theater space, have adopted virtual online performances as the new norm. The show must go on, and in the age of social distancing, nobody said it has to be live to be engaging and fully appreciated.

So how do you make a virtual show as intriguing as a live one? Ask John DiDonna and his troop from Phantasmagoria. Right on time for the Halloween season, they were back with their latest installment, Phantasmagoria XI: Plague Tales, which continues their tradition of reviving tales of horror from literary classics.

Only this year, the audience has transitioned from a local theater to their own home.

What Is Phantasmagoria?

For the past decade, a staple of the Halloween season has been the circus-like troupe of performers who have gathered on stage to perform dancing, aerial acrobatics, music, and their true raison d’etre, storytelling. Think of it as the theatrical version of gathering around a campfire and telling ghost stories, only here DiDonna — who created, wrote and has directed and acted in this series — has always eagerly opened the vaults of classic literature to find juicy horror stories to recreate on stage. This series has been successful enough that it’s not only brought a new installment to every October for the past 11 years, but also expanded to include appearances at the Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival, a special Phantasmagoria version of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol around the holidays, and tours outside the state of Florida.

With social distancing measures still in place, DiDonna shifted this year to live shows performed online every Sunday night at 8, with easy login access on Phantasmagoria’s Facebook page. And as he’s readily acknowledged, it wouldn’t be a memorable Halloween season without an entirely new Phantasmagoria show to chill audiences. What they delivered was Phantasmagoria XI: Plague Tales, their first virtual online theater performance, and in keeping with tradition, they recount five tales of terror, including one of horror literature’s best known and most gruesome stories.

But, you might be asking, does it work as a virtual show? Having now watched the online performance, it struck me that Phantasmagoria is probably even better suited to a virtual performance than other theatrical events. The key to that is the very theatrical nature of Phantasmagoria: they’ve used videos projected onto the rear of the stage, life-size puppets, dances with fire torches, stage combat and high-flying acrobatics as part of the entertainment, so their shows are always strikingly visual. In addition to the actors, there’s always something else happening, both visually and through sound effects, to keep you intrigued.

How Does Plague Tales Aim To Scare Audiences?

In Plague Tales, the troupe is trying their best to avoid a problematic witch ( who will, of course, make an appearance during the show), as they recount some eerie tales from the masters of horror. The first was Edgar Allan Poe’s dark and malicious tale “Hop-Frog,” about a dwarf forced to become a court jestor for a king who routinely abuses him; the title character eventually convinces the king and his entire cabinet to dress as orangutans for a masquerade, while secretly plotting a most gruesome revenge. Considered by Poe scholars as the horror master’s attack on critics of his work, it’s an excellent choice for a staged version.

Equally effective is “The Monk Alone,” based on a short story by Seattle playwright Erik Keevan, set inside a dank and dark tomb, and “Thrawn Janet,” from the short story by Robert Louis Stevenson, about a small town preacher who hires an old woman, Janet, as his housekeeper –, despite warnings from the locals that she’s in league with the devil. The preacher even saves Janet when the locals try to dunk her in a river to prove she’s a witch; but he’s startled the next day when he sees Janet now has a “thrawn,” or twisted neck, with her head hanging to the side, like someone who has been hanged ….

The best, though, is the classic supernatural story “The Monkey’s Paw” by W.W. Jacobs, which has been a favorite of readers since it was first published in 1902, and for good reason. It ingeniously raises that eternal warning, “Be careful what you wish for,” in telling the story of Mr. and Mrs. White and their adult son Herbert, whose lives are turned upside down when an old friend returning from India shows them a mummified monkey’s paw that he brought back, which is said to be able to three wishes to anyone who possesses it. The caveat, of course, is there can be disastrous consequences for anyone tampering with fate. The Phantasmagoria actors have a particularly good time retelling this grisly tale.

Phantasmagoria XI: Plague Tales, which runs for an hour and 20 minutes, will have final encore performance today through Sunday, Nov. 8 at 11:59 p.m. For ticket links, visit www.phantasmagoriaorlando.com.

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.

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