So far this spooky season, I've experienced more than two dozen haunted houses and scare zones between Universal and SeaWorld's Halloween events — not to mention facing down hordes of zombie clowns at Scream n' Stream — and all that was before October had even begun. If you're craving an All Hallows celebration, but you're looking for something more sophisticated than jump scares, treat yourself to one of these eerily inventive theatrical experiences.
HORROR IN HEADPHONES
In recent years, I've followed Phoenix Tears Productions on innovative immersive journeys at the Fringe Festival, in cyberspace, and even (back at the start of the pandemic) inside a suburban garage. But last week's media preview of Horror in Headphones — the latest audio-based adventure from producer-director Mallory Vance and writer Megan Markham — took me on the longest trip yet, all the way to Santa's Christmas Tree Forest in Eustis. Brave souls who make the trek can embark on two different stories, both of which involve walking through the woods wearing wireless headsets as live actors pantomime to a slickly produced pre-recorded soundtrack.
In The Resurrection, I followed Gwen (Leanna Bailey, voiced by Callie Wills), whose hobbies include necromancy and eating spiders, on a pleasant flashlight-lit stroll through a sylvan glade that's supposedly stalked by a serial killer. The tour starts out campy, as Gwen gushes about her non-living, nonbinary lover, then turns violently gory in the inevitable twist ending. Next, Camp Alkeridge took me on a brief hayride to a haunted summer camp, where counselor Grace (Megan Markham, voiced by Claire Hoeg) assures visitors that the legendary Alkemesh Monster is nothing to worry about ... right up until the moment she's eviscerated.
Of the two shows (which are separately ticketed), I felt Camp Alkeridge was far stronger, thanks to the clever true-crime podcast that kicks it off and an interactive hide-and-seek moment in the middle. Both could use bigger blow-offs to end their twisted tales, and neither exploits the skin-crawling dimensional sound effects Phoenix Tears used to such great effect in last year's Infected. I'm not certain either on their own are worth recommending the 45-plus minute drive from downtown Orlando. However, if you combine them both with the included petting zoo, pumpkin patch, and beer garden selling food and custom cocktails, Horror in Headphones offers a full evening's entertainment that's a tempting alternative to the theme park haunts. (through Oct. 30; phoenixtearsproductions.com)
It's barely been a month since artistic director Donald Rupe's Renaissance Theatre Company secured its new home (thanks in large part to a donation from co-founder Chris Kampmeier) in the former Orlando Ballet rehearsal hall near Loch Haven Park. But you'd be forgiven for thinking they'd been building out the venue for years, based on the richly textured environments their all-star roster of designers have wrought for Nosferatu. From the deck of a storm-lashed 18th-century sailing ship to a 1990s-era underground strip club to a moonlit clearing with towering trees, Nosferatu transports its patrons across time and space for an immersive encounter with the undead, featuring some of the best-executed aesthetics I've seen in many an October.
Rupe has crafted an original century-spanning mythology for Nosferatu that nods at F.W. Murnau's 1922 film of the same name — along with Bram Stoker's novel Dracula, as well as Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Twilight and The Lost Boys — while introducing a mesmerizing new monster in the form of David Lee's Max, a vampire king who communicates with echolocation clicks when he isn't belting power ballads. Max's Renfield-esque minion (Blake Aburn) incants menacing exposition between bouts of maniacal laughter, but the loose storyline is largely moved forward by choreographer Kathleen Wessel's hypnotic fusion of athletic contemporary steps with modern pedestrian and gestural movements, electrifyingly performed by associate choreographer Adonus Mabry and an uncannily committed cast.
I was thrilled right from the start by the bold theatricality of the opening ocean-bound act, and blown away when previously hidden doors opened to usher us into the neon-soaked Club V (complete with a full liquor bar serving cocktails throughout the performance) for the second. But it was the third portion of the evening, when patrons were unleashed to explore various rooms throughout the building and discover different vampiric vignettes, that cemented Nosferatu's spot on my list of favorite theatrical frights. Only the grand finale left an unpleasant taste in my mouth; the ending's blood-drenched orgy is aiming for transgressive eroticism, but watching Calvin Klein-clad performers writhing in what looks like strawberry Nesquik was instead unintentionally comedic. That closing misstep aside, Nosferatu's chilling heights have me hungrily looking forward to devouring whatever Renaissance Theatre Company might unleash on Orlando next. (through Oct. 31; rentheatre.com)