‘Phantasmagoria’ thrills

ORLANDO — “Phantasmagoria III” is a theatrical world of its own design, unique in theme and boundlessly creative as a manifestation of fantasy-horror in a bizarre assemblage.

“It feels good to be back after three years running, to step back into the same world and recreate it again,” said writer, creator and director John DiDonna. DiDonna also teaches acting at Valencia’s East Campus.

The play focuses on a traveling troupe of twisted centuries-old storytellers. They present wildly imaginative stories intended to delight and terrify any who dare bear witness. Lines from these tales are read between alternating storytellers and other cast members. The full cast of 18 players chant a few key moments in unison to add emphasis.

Cast members stay in motion throughout the performance, often catching audience members off guard. As you watch the action in front, occasionally you’ll hear an ominous whisper from behind you.

As eyes adjust to the darkness that engulf the rotunda, the low light created an ambiance intended to transport the minds of the audience. The unique characters and detailed Victorian steampunk-themed costumes will delight lovers of fantasy.

Three sets of scaffolding were erected within the space, allowing cast members to climb to the ceiling and disappear into the darkness.

“I feel like my track within this show is some sort of insane carousel, and you have to hit it immediately and let yourself get taken away,” said Joshua Geoghagan, who played a reluctant storyteller named Leon. He is new to this year’s cast.

Another notable addition to this year’s production is a hanging screen which contains an overhead atmospheric projection. Several months of work went into timing the array of images and video used to highlight the action below.

The pace of each of the seven stories feels quite brisk and is a delightful treat to those familiar with the tales. The classic Edgar Allan Poe story “The Tell-Tale Heart” was most easily recognized and the actors brilliantly captured Poe’s madness with their rendition.

“‘Tell-Tale Heart’ stood out for me, classic Poe,” said audience member Chris Wilcox. “Definitely frightening and kept up with the concept of Halloween, very dark elements throughout and you couldn’t ask for a better show this time of year,” said Wilcox.

Between stories, dancers acted as an enchanting transition. Each dance number was portrayed in varied styles.

And then there were the puppets.

These go beyond an average person’s preconceived understanding of puppetry. Several of them were brilliantly used to create moments of sheer terror. Of all puppets used during the production, the most frightening was saved for last.

“I think the message is much more clear this year. There has always been a message between us in the troupe, but it’s never been as clearly communicated to the audience,” said actress Cameron Gagne, who played the enchanting Isabella.

Tickets are $15-$20 at the door and can be reserved by calling 407-328-9005. More information about this show and other updates can be found on the group’s Facebook page at www.facebook.com/PhantasmagoriaOrlando.