Through Oct. 31 at Lowndes Shakespeare Center
812 E. Rollins St.
The Empty Spaces Theatre Co. and the Orlando Puppet Festival lead us into the Halloween season with a charming evening of entertainment called Phantasmagoria, now being performed at the Lowndes Shakespeare Center’s Mandell Theater. Conceived, written and directed by John DiDonna, artistic director of Empty Spaces, the 90-minute show bills itself as “A grand guignol nightmare of puppetry, dance and haunted storytelling beyond your darkest fears!”
Actually, fear seems to be the one emotion not elicited from the Phantasmagoria audience, which is more likely to receive DiDonna’s imaginative vision with a mixture of childlike glee and adult appreciation. The production features several clever and very funny Punch and Judy puppet routines (replete with gratuitous violence, fake blood and sexual innuendo), lyrical dance numbers choreographed by Nicole Yezzi and lively narrations of classic horror tales delivered by the dynamic cast, which includes Cory Boughton, Roger Floyd, Emily Killian, Samantha O’Hare and Chris Prueitt.
The show’s overall atmosphere is one of clownish whimsy and even one rendering of a horror story – Franz Kakfa’s Metamorphosis – is more slapstick than grotesque. The show’s most effective playlet is Varney the
Vampire or the Feast of Blood, adapted from one of the “penny dreadful” publications popular in 19th-century England.
The production is visually stimulating thanks to the wonderful costume design by Jennifer Bonner, DiDonna’s puppet constructions and Zanna King’s moody lighting. Sound designer Les Caulfield’s musical score is beautiful throughout and ideally suited to the evening’s off-kilter grotesquery. And while the storytelling actors sometimes rush through their lines – Edgar Allan Poe’s The Raven becomes overly frantic when it should be tragic and lamentable – DiDonna’s stage direction is always nimble and effective.
While Phantasmagoria’s principals suggest that the show is not particularly suitable for children, I would disagree. I think that youngsters should be exposed to creative and provocative theatrical experiments that play to our capacity for wonder and enchantment, especially since most Halloween entertainment tends to rely on worn-out rituals or overly commercialized narratives. So, by all means, bring the kids and be prepared to be amused and delighted – but not terribly scared.