ORLANDO — Quite frankly, Ebenezer Scrooge never had it so good.
The elderly miser of Charles Dickens’ classic holiday novella is a literary legend for having endured the sad, grim and spooky visions of his past, present and future on that fateful Christmas Eve, and there’s hardly a better choice to create a stage version than the Victorian troop from Phantasmagoria. With more than a decade of experience recreating literature’s best ghost and horror stories around Halloween, their skills at eerie storytelling work fabulously on the Dickens perennial.
The production, which opened Friday at the Dr. Phillips Center For The Performing Arts, which be around this month for those who enjoy the chills that a good ghost saga delivers along with Dickens’ ultimate faith in the generosity of the human spirit. There’s no saying “Bah! Humbug” to this one.
What is Phantasmagoria’s A Christmas Carol?
Phantasmagoria, the troop of circus-like actors, dancers, and storytellers has returned this holiday season as the Victorian Troupe Phantasmagoria for their annual production of “A Christmas Carol, A Ghost Story of Christmas.” Since their retelling of the Dickens’ tale clocks in at one hour, the troupe expanded the production with a second act where they perform Oscar Wilde’s witty “The Canterville Ghost,” the humorous story about an American family that moves into a castle haunted by the ghost of a dead English nobleman with some ghastly secrets to tell.
Phantasmagoria productions have always been notable for the large cast of actors and actresses who take on multiple roles, and the cinema-like screen behind the stage that sweeps us into the settings in both stories. Those illustrations are crucial to the production’s impact, since they put us firmly in the places where Scrooge and later Sir Simon de Canterville partake of their adventures. You get instantly drawn into the bitter cold on Scrooge’s bleak Christmas Eve, and to the gloomy, foreboding house he returns to that evening after work.
The best illustration: his late partner Jacob Marley’s creepy, macabre face emerging from his front doorknocker.
Another excellent touch in this year’s production was the use of lighting — specifically, the traditional holiday colors red and green, which enhance the mood considerably.
Phantasmagoria’s creator, John DiDonna, handles the lead role of Scrooge, a character he’s been playing for more than a decade in productions such as this one and Christmas By Candlelight, and he has Scrooge’s snide temperament and eventual enlightenment down pat. The story itself is a classic for a reason, and always works around the holiday season, as the Ghosts of Christmas Past, Christmas Present and Christmas Yet To Come show Scrooge how his obsession with money led him badly astray.
The cast is uniformly good here, and the story really soars when they bring forward one of their signature traits, the use of life-sized puppets for some of the ghosts. The giant and silent Ghost of Christmas Yet To Come is the production’s highlight. Towering above Scrooge, it guides him to a future where the townspeople laugh about the death of a man nobody liked, and then to a neglected grave with a tombstone bearing Scrooge’s name (another exceptionally good illustration). The giant specter and the trip to that dark, grim graveyard are pulled off with enormous artistic skill.
The cast has as much fun applying the same techniques to The Canverville Ghost, a much lighter and more comical tale that was kind of an early Beetlejuice, and taken together, these two shows provide a fabulous night of holiday entertainment — eloquent, with playful and sparkling humor, and just the right amount of pathos to leave you cheering Scrooge on by the end. And yes, there are some ghostly moments guaranteed to chill your bones.
When Will These Holiday Shows Be Performed?
The show is being performed at Dr. Phillips Center for the Performing Arts in downtown Orlando in the Alexis & Jim Pugh Theater today at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 2 p.m.
From there, the show moves to:
- The Reilly Arts Center in Ocala on Dec. 11
- The Ritz Theatre at the Wayne Densch Performing Arts Center in Sanford on Dec. 17
- The Athens Theater in Deland on Dec. 22-23.
What is Phantasmagoria?
Two words: Victorian Horror.
For every Halloween season since 2009, the Phantasmagoria troupe has been entertaining local audiences through acrobatics, music, dance, giant puppets, and, most importantly, by recreating classic tales of terror from the vaults of legendary horror writers like Poe, Mary Shelley and many others. Each year, there are new stories — not to mention new adventures for the circus-like performers themselves, and also sometimes new actors as well.
If you’ve lived in Central Florida over the past decade, that word Phantasmagoria needs no introduction. The troupe has been performing around Halloween, at the Orlando International Fringe Theatre Festival, and more recently, around Christmas with their unique version of A Christmas Carol.
Michael Freeman is an Orlando journalist, playwright, and author of the book A Christmas Eve Story. Contact him at Freelineorlando@gmail.com.