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Old 10-05-2010   #1
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Phantasmagoria: A Halloween horror puppet show for grown-ups

Halloween Haunts: "Phantasmagoria" aims for scares for grownups, October 5, 2010

ORLANDO -– It touches on some of the most haunting and eerie moments in world literature: Mary Shelley's 'Frankenstein,' Franz Kafka's 'The Metamorphosis,' and Edgar Allen [sic] Poe's 'The Raven,' among other. The legend of Varney the Vampire is there, along with the terrifying real life exploits of serial killer Jeffrey Dahmer.

This roller coaster ride of terror comes by the name 'Phantasmagoria,' and arrives on Friday, just in time for the Halloween season.

It also comes to the Mandell Theater of the Lowndes Shakespeare Center in Orlando's Loch Haven Park as part of the 2010 Orlando Puppet Festival, which, like the play, runs through Halloween night. The play, a stroll through literary history's most haunting nightmares, combines large-scale puppetry, shadow puppets, and even a Grand Guignol Punch and Judy stage, all of it interacting with live actors.

For the mastermind behind this production, it spent a long time in the development stage.

'It originated 17 years ago as a loose thought about a fantastical circus,' said the creator and director, John DiDonna. 'At the time I didn't know what form it was going to take, but I did have these images of a horror circus.'

DiDonna has experience in the field of horror/fantasy theater. He played the lead in Theatre Downtown's production of 'Poe,' as well as Frank n Furter in the same theater's revival of 'The Rocky Horror Show,' a role he's reprising this month in Syracuse, N.Y. He also wrote and directed 'Bathory,' about the 16th century Hungarian countess known for beating peasant girls to death and bathing in their blood.

'Phantasmagoria' finally came together, DiDonna said, when he seized on the perfect vehicle to recreate some of history's most disturbing literature.

'I said, ‘Well, you know what, the circus will be about puppets,' he said. 'We have four puppeteers, and puppetry and storytelling and dance. It's fantastical. It's meant to be whimsical.

'And,' he added, 'it's Halloween.'

The puppets assist the actors in bringing to life characters so well known to lovers of literature: Frankenstein's creation, Jack the Ripper, and Gregor Samsa, the Czech salesman who turns into a giant bug.

'Every single piece we used is based on an original piece,' DiDonna said.

And despite employing puppets, the play's literary roots should appeal to adults, said Roger Floyd, one of the show's performers.

'It's an intelligent Halloween show -– Halloween for an intellectual and a grownup,' Floyd said. 'Which is unique, because how often do you get to hear Kafka, Poe, and Mary Shelley's original Frankenstein?'

'We're showing how the literate can be mixed with the whimsical, and showing the true Halloween, that it's about celebration,' DiDonna added. 'There's a very loose, loose plot that goes through it, of love and loss.'

It was enough to attract veteran Orlando stage actress Emily Killian, who jumped at the opportunity to work on 'Phantasmagoria.'

'What don't I like about it?' she said. 'I love that we're working with all these stories everyone has heard of, but we're getting down to their origins.'

In addition to acting in the play, Killian is also directing the Punch and Judy segments -– and she tried to stay true to the ghoulish, dark humor of the original European puppet shows they're based on.

'It's definitely a similar style,' she said. 'I'm trying to keep the integrity of the original style.'

'Phantasmagoria' is being presented by Empty Space Theatre Co. To learn more, email

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grownups, halloween, horror, phantasmagoria, puppet, show

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