The Graveyard Beckons in Phantasmagoria XIV

ORLANDO — With Halloween just days away, the setting is a graveyard, and at first it’s one seen in the light of day. Graveyards, we’re duly informed, were once a place where families gathered to relax and maybe even enjoy a picnic. After all, graveyards have plenty of green space and are quiet and peaceful.

Well, in the daytime anyway. Wait until the darkness sets in.

So begins Phantasmagoria XIV – “Tales of the Undead,” the latest in director John DiDonna’s macabre recreation of horror stories from the vaults of classic literature, told by his collection of actors, singers, dancers and puppeteers. DiDonna, who also writes these plays and acts in them, chose a deliciously spooky setting this year. There’s nothing like wandering through a graveyard to get you into the mood for ghostly mayhem.

This 90-minute production, which opened on Thursday in the Alexis & Jim Pugh Theater at the Dr. Phillips Center For The Performing Arts and continues tonight and Saturday, delivers an assortment of graveyard-themed scares, from ghosts to vampires and even Banshees. This production has “grand Halloween fun” written all over it.

What is Phantasmagoria XIV?

Phantasmagoria, for the uninitiated, is a troupe of circus-like performers who have been creating original shows for more than a decade, and “Tales of the UnDead” marks their 14th straight season in Central Florida. The spooky stories are combined with dance, lavish sets, animation and puppetry, and this year has the added bonus of featuring original music compositions by Josh Solomon.

In fact, this is the first year that Phantasmagoria has incorporated something entirely new, with cabaret singer MoMo Lynn leading the audience into this show with her stunning voice — a decidedly welcome addition that makes the entire proceedings even more colorful.

Horror theater differs immensely from horror movies, which have the benefit of big budget special effects and trick cinematography to create the illusion of the supernatural. In theatre, the audience is asked to use its imagination as the settings get eerier.

What’s so appealing about Phantasmagoria productions, though, is the gloriously creative effort they make to give the audience a surer sense of the supernatural inching ever closer. The back stage hosts a huge screen that presents some delightfully spooky animation, taking us into the graveyards, dark woods, old gothic castles and so on that the stories are set in — places we likely would never go into alone, especially in the middle of the night.

The music score by Solomon adds considerably to the sense of foreboding, helping to keep the audience on edge as our narrators retell these dark and menacing stories. The third highly effective element is the often life-size puppets that become the ominous creatures of the night these tales center on, with ghoulish faces that heighten the fear factor.

And then there’s the cast, which has by now perfected the art of narrating these stories — larger than life presentations that mix dark humor with the pending doom each tale delivers. There’s certainly an impressive degree of craftsmanship that goes into the Phantasmagoria productions, from the sets and historic-looking costumes to the animation that creates the environment for us, and the puppets that look appropriately monstrous.

The stories offer a unique mix of different horrors. “Varney the Vampire,” a  Victorian era gothic horror story that was considered among the first “penny dreadfuls” and possibly one of the earliest vampire tales, is presented here with a suitably blood-soaked ending.

It represents a sharp contrast to the very different “The Premature Burial,” an Edgar Allan Poe horror story about the fear of being misdiagnosed as dead when the patient is simply in a death-like trance, and to be buried alive — a grisly paranoia that has no need for monsters.

Phantasmagoria XIV has more to offer, including a rendition of Haunted Poetry from masters such as Robert Frost and Charles Dickens to “And, At Last, Home,” an original story written by Seattle author Erik Keevan for Phantasmagoria following his stint at Rollins College. I won’t spoil the fun on this one. But safe to say if you’re curious about how horror is presented as live theater, and are not sure whether it can be as effective as what you see in the movies, you’re likely to find lots to appreciate in Phantasmagoria XIV.

Phantasmagoria XIV is being performed tonight and Saturday at 8 p.m. at Dr. Phillips Center, and then will move on to additional performances at Ocala’s Reilly Arts Center (those performances are sold out), The Tampa Theatre, The Athens Theatre in Deland, and The Melon Patch Theatre in Leesburg.

Happy hauntings!

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.

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