Highbrow horror 

Phantasmagoria II offers Halloween gore for grown-ups

Phantasmagoria II

through Oct. 30
Mandell Theater at Orlando Shakes

Actor, director, writer and impresario John DiDonna and his merry band of thespians are currently haunting the stage of the Mandell Theater at the Orlando Shakespeare Theater with Phantasmagoria II, the Empty Spaces Theatre Co.’s new edition of its Grand Guignol music and dance spectacle. Like last year’s offering, the evening is a Halloween compendium of macabre ghost tales, creative choreography and inspired puppet histrionics. While the show lacks some of the gallows humor of the original Phantasmagoria, the production is still a delightful tapestry of deft tale-spinning, evocative soundscapes and stunning visual effects.

Taking as their texts classic and lesser-known spooky stories, Empty Spaces recasts Edgar Allen Poe’s The Masque of the Red Death to open the proceedings, followed by a trio of chilling folk legends from Japan, Scotland and Africa. Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray is the penultimate yarn, with Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwocky closing the 90-minute presentation. With each story, Empty Spaces utilizes all of their theatrical tools – strong acting, interesting sonics, ingenious imagery – to convey the emotional weight of the narrative. In between each fable, the company dancers regale the audience with inventive terpsichorean motifs staged by Nicole Yezzi and Mila Makarova.

DiDonna, who may be Central Florida’s most eclectic and resourceful director, has staged every element of Phantasmagoria II with a keen concentration on its theatricality and overall effect on the audience. His crew of puppet designers and manipulators display great mastery of their craft, sound designer Les Caulfield’s musical compositions are eerie as well as beautiful, Zanna Paulson’s lighting is colorfully moody, and Jennifer Bonner’s vaguely Victorian costumes are appropriate to the Samhain season.

While the theme parks continue to roll out the same hackneyed spook shows each Halloween season, DiDonna and company travel a vastly more interesting road. Their aim is not to scare you, but rather to enchant your spirit and captivate your senses. I hope that Phantasmagoria becomes a yearly event and that DiDonna and his troupe will continue to find stories to tell and exhilarating ways to tell them. In this season of ghouls and ghosts, there’s no better trick or treat in town.


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