ORLANDO – Two clowns start performing, as the audience continues to filter into the theater before the start of the show, right up until the lights go down.
It’s true that some clowns can seem ominous – there’s even a term for this particular anxiety, Coulrophobia – but these two clowns are more comical than eerie, amusing the audience with some very clever slapstick.
Looks, I suppose, can be deceiving.
As the lights fade and the dark settles in, and the other cast members of “Phantasmagoria III: Something TRULY Wicked this Way Comes” fill the room, the atmosphere at first stays pleasant and airy – they dance across the room, charming the crowd with their light steps and dashing grins. It’s a circus, after all, and like any good circus, they aim to entertain.
But it’s also October, and a time for theater to cast a dark shadow, that gives all us the feeling of wandering down a hallway that gets darker and more unsettling as we keep moving, until suddenly we’re alone in total darkness – and it feels disturbing and leaves us apprehensive. If you’ve seen director John DiDonna’s earlier installments of “Phantasmagoria,” you happily know what to expect – the mix of talented dancers, singers, comics and dramatic actors who establish a circus-like atmosphere as they recreate classic tales of terror.
Following the same pattern with this third installment, I noticed it very early on – unmistakable, since the sounds were right behind me. I glanced over my shoulder, instantly recognizing what I was hearing: a very small blond haired girl, perhaps five or six, the tears running down her cheeks as she huddled in her father’s arms, saying over and over again “I’m scared,” as he tried to calm her.
You might think a show like “Phantasmagoria” is ill-suited for young children, but as director DiDonna noted, this is not an intense scare show, not a scene where innocent victims are suddenly chased and mauled by the walking dead. Our cast recreates several short tales of terror, of which the best known is likely Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart” – not a story of zombies, monsters or aliens, but of the darkest side of the human soul. If we meet the monster, it’s likely to be from glancing in the mirror and not liking what we see.
And I should also note that the small child didn’t cry for long. She was soon watching the entertainers in the same way as her older sister – both seemed positively transfixed at what was happening on the stage.
That’s a remarkable achievement, because “Phantasmagoria III” is quite sophisticated as the cast leads us through tales like Sir Walter Scott’s poem “The Wild Hunstman”, the legend of London’s “Spring Heeled Jack” – a character from English folklore of the Victorian era, said to have terrified London with his frightful appearance — and “The Beast in the Cave” by H.P. Lovecraft. Wolves prowl the cold, hostile landscape, skeletons dance before our eyes, and figures rise up from the grave. As in past installments, marionettes are used to portray the skeleton, the wolf, and more.
And while the stories lack the quick shocks and Gotcha! moments of today’s movie and cable television horror, not to mention rapid fire video games, it’s easy to understand why works like “The Tell Tale Heart” continue to fascinate audiences, with their slow, progressively menacing buildup.
At the same time, “Phantasmagoria III” has a stunning degree of visual flair, and not just from the almost rapid-fire interplay between the actors and the marionettes. The ceiling lights up with graphics that set the scene for us – the landscapes that the tales are set in — while other performers lurk stealthily behind the audience, startling us with an unexpected sound or movement.
We’ve sailed into a magical world of fantasy that proves to be astonishingly gripping, exciting and humorous at times – and still has the ability at times to chill us. No wonder those two girls found the play so enchanting by the end – it’s hypnotic in the remarkable worlds the performers create for us on the stage. Few stories seem as intense and exotic as their recreation of Frederick Marryat’s “The White Wolf of the Hartz Mountains,” which could easily have been extended and made into its own first-rate show.
“Phantasmagoria III” is a DiDonna Productions and The Empty Spaces Theatre Co(llaboration), that employs the superb talent of performers like Trenell Mooring, Samantha O’Hare, and Chris Prueitt as Cyril, our ringleader.
The circus is in town, and with Halloween right around the corner, it delivers its chills in expert fashion.
Tickets are $20 for general audiences and $15 for students and seniors, and can be reserved by calling 407-328-9005. Credit card orders can be made online at www.redchairproject.com. The play continues on Oct. 18-21, and Oct. 25-28, with special shows on Monday, Oct. 29 and a Halloween show on Oct. 31. All performances start at 8:30 p.m. at the John and Rita Lowndes Shakespeare Center in Loch Haven Park.
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