“Phantasmagoria III: Something TRULY Wicked This Way Comes” opens on Friday at the Lowndes Shakespeare Theatre.
ORLANDO – In the early 1800s, John DiDonna noted, European writers demonstrated a remarkable flair for deeply disturbing tales of horror, that relied not on monsters or demons, but on dark, probing glances into a human soul.
“These are horrible tales of men and extremity, and life in its extremes,” DiDonna said. “They are mortals, they are not otherworldly, as are the stories themselves. These were completely different from what American writers did — wonderfully textured stories, stories that you don’t get today. Now we get the monsters more, but in these older stories, it was about the human journey.”
DiDonna, the theater director, actor and playwright who runs The Empty Spaces Theatre Co. in Orlando, is looking back at that European literature as his inspiration for “PHANTASMAGORIA III: Something TRULY Wicked this way Comes!,” the third installment of DiDonna’s unique theatrical experience, his Halloween mix of dance, storytelling, humor and puppetry.
In the past two years, “Phantasmagoria” has presented audiences with a troupe of circus performers who play the violin, sing and dance, eager to entertain ….. until in the darkness of the theater, they begin to tell ghost stories, recreating classic tales of terror like Edgar Allan Poe’s “The Masque of the Red Death,” Oscar Wilde’s “The Picture of Dorian Gray” and “The Woman of the Snow,” a Japanese ghost epic about a mysterious woman in white.
In addition to the performers who have recreated that ambiance of folks telling ghost stories around the campfire when you’re all alone in the woods, DiDonna has employed life-sized puppets to give audiences the Red Death who enters the castle of Prospero, the portrait of a hideously deformed Dorian Gray, and the ghostly Japanese woman in white.
Now comes the third installment of Empty Spaces Theatre Co.’s “Phantasmagoria,” which will be performed in the Round at the Lowndes Shakespeare Center, opening Friday night at 8:30, with performances continuing through Oct. 31.
This time around, DiDonna said, “Phantasmagoria” looked to classic European horror literature for inspiration.
“We stay very much away from films,” he said. “We do gothic literature from the 1800s and before, and a lot of it is unknown gothic literature from that time period. It’s got a very European flair this time.”
Those who have seen the past installments, he said, know what to expect, while those who are new to “Phantasmagoria” are likely to experience something unique and startling, DiDonna added.
“It isn’t really meant to scare people, though we hope there are a few scary moments in it,” he said. “It’s meant to kind of thrill a little bit, and a little bit of astonishment and amazement and whimsical wonder. I wanted to tell the story of the storytellers themselves, so we learn more about their relationships. There are things that float through, where we learn more about the individual writers. We’ll have the story as theirs, and we learn more about them and how these tales came together, and in the end you learn what their purpose was in writing them.”
This year’s performance, he added, will offer something else that’s new to the series.
“We’re doing it in the round,” DiDonna said. “It’s arena-style, so it’s very different for that reason. We went a little further with the technical work like the projections, which are all moving projections above the heads of the audience, 14 feet up on the ceiling. It has more of a circus flair this time.”
And once again, the puppets and performers work side by side, he said.
“They are means of telling the stories. It is a circus,” he said. “The puppetry came aboard because I love puppetry. I was influenced by a marionette troop I saw in Atlanta, and I said to myself, ‘Yes, let’s use puppetry, that would be good.’ ”
This year, Samantha O’Hare and Chris Prueitt lead the cast, Mila Makarova of Dance Center of Orlando is handling the choreography, and there’s an original music score by Tod Kimbro. Together, they hope to offer a Halloween show for adults, a thinking man’s look at what scares us most deeply …. perhaps our own most deeply repressed impulses?
The eerie tales recreated here will include Edgar Allen Poe’s “The Tell-Tale Heart,” Sir Walter Scott’s “The Wild Hunstman,” and a story by H.P. Lovecraft, among others.
“Each writer has their own take on this,” DiDonna said. “It’s not meant for splatter films. It’s got suspense elements, it’s got heartfelt moments, and there are two comic pieces in it this year. It’s just a way of gathering around the campfire to tell ghost stories.”
“Pantasmagoria III” is being performed at the John & Rota Lowndes Shakespeare Theater at 812 E. Rollins St. in Orlando. Tickets are $15-20, and can be reserved by calling 407-328-9005 or visiting www.redchairproject.com.

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