John DiDonna begins a ninth year with his talented troupe of Phantasmagoria performers well-versed in the macabre. Next up: a Christmas tale.
The Phantasmagoria performers, including DiDonna in his bowler hat and shades, gather around a cozy fire for a family portrait.
It’s a hot Sunday afternoon and I’ve shown up—inappropriately dressed— for the sexiest/scariest costume party Sanford has ever seen.
Only it’s not a party. It’s “photo call” for the cast of Orlando’s famed Phantasmagoria.They’re in their steampunk costumes to promote the coming season of scary stories, fire dancing, puppetry and magic. Company founder John DiDonna is coaching his co-stars, his “family in fright,” to get the right pose.
“Give me a ‘COME hither’ look, not a ‘come HITHER’ look,” he implores the ladies in their black bustiers, can-can skirts and fishnet stockings, who smirk at the distinction between the desired “come and see our show’’ expression and one that says “come up and see me sometime.’’
It’s a sexy show, but hey, keep it PG—OK, PG-13.
Debuting in 2010 at the Lowndes Shakespeare Center, Phantasmagoria came to life as “the horror circus of my dreams,” DiDonna says. His dreams? Laden with the gloom and terror of classic Universal and Hammer horror films (The Mummy, Frankenstein, etc.).
The shows are a steampunk mashup of dance, magic and horror tales from folklore and legend, Edgar Allan Poe and Ambrose Bierce. Aerialists swing, dancers play with fire, puppets cavort and the players tell the story of Poe’s The Tell-Tale Heart or perform The Raven, transitioning to Dickens’ Captain Murderer.
DiDonna, a familiar name on the Orlando theater scene for nearly 30 years, instructs his cast during a photo shoot at his "haunted" house. (ROGER MOORE)
The shows change annually, and with each passing year, the reach of Phantasmagoria grows—from Orlando to Tampa, Melbourne to DeLand, Mount Dora and parts in between. They’ve taken it as far north as the city Poe died in—Baltimore—and a Phantasmagoria satellite troupe just debuted in Atlanta.
Mary McKenzie, fire dancer and fire director for the ensemble, plays the “sadistic” Allegra. “John creates these elaborate backstories for every character, and the relationships between characters onstage evolve,” she says.
DiDonna, a self-confessed comic books movie nerd, has created his own universe, weaving characters into an elaborate traveling circus of storyteller/players. The cast ranges in age from 12 to “who knows?” with many returning, year after year. Phantasmagoria has grown from its original 16 to the 50 who do everything from main stage shows to interactive events like Spooky Empire’s annual Horror Convention, where dancers and magicians perform, all dolled up in in Victoriana that Jack the Ripper and the streetwalkers he preyed upon would have recognized: lace-up boots, skirts, vests and hats in shades of burgundy, gray and black.
“I saw this show when I was growing up and kind of fell into macabre literature,” says Malcolm Boniface, a 20-year-old who plays a magician named Callum McGregor. “By the time I joined, we would be doing new stories that I already knew.”
DiDonna, who teaches at Valencia College and has directed shows for most every theater company in Central Florida, recruits apprentices who work their way through the ensemble into speaking roles. Others he just knew he had to enlist after seeing them on an Orlando stage. Daniel Cooksley, a Theatre Downtown/Mad Cow Theatre veteran, best known for a production of One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, was one of those recruits.
“He tells you, ‘I’ve got a character for you’, ” Cooksley says of DiDonna. “He empowers us to create who we are within this world. . . . It’s why everybody wants to be in this show!”
That includes UCF alumna Roxanne LeBlanc, who can be seen most nights playing The Queen at Orlando’s Medieval Times dinner show. In Phantasmagoria, however, the New Orleans native is Illythea, a belly dancer and sideshow performer. Illythea is, LeBlanc whispers, “Goddess of the Womb,” a voodoo murderess of 18th century New Orleans whose inability to conceive caused her man to leave her for her best friend. “She killed them both with her voodoo,” LeBlanc says with a grin.
Even as the shows vary from year to year, Phantasmagoria cast members get a feel for which tales hold up to repeated retelling. And no Phantasmagoria would be complete without Dickens’ Captain Murderer.
“That’s our ‘Free Bird,’ ” actor and fight choreographer Bill Warriner jokes. He holds the same position at the Orlando Shakes theater, but he marvels that when he returns to Phantasmagoria, audiences chant along, reciting lines from this creepiest Dickens story ever.
“Captain Murderer, what kind of PIE is this supposed to be?”
The troupe’s success with Dickens’ short story has prompted them to dive into his most famous work, A Christmas Carol, with a version of their own. As Warriner says, “It is a ghost story.”
It’s DiDonna’s “haunted” house in historic Sanford where the cast gathers to be photographed. A Brooklyn native who first came to Orlando, fittingly enough, to work on TV’s Swamp Thing back in 1990, DiDonna blames all this spookiness on a misspent youth. During childhood, a favorite uncle would tell him, “Johnny, all this interest in monsters and horror, that’s not gonna do anything for you!”
But after nine years of Phantasmagoria, hundreds of performances, 12 different versions of their main stage show, and a newly minted A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas, Johnny gets the last laugh—a maniacal one. Just don’t call him Johnny. If he’s wearing the bowler and vintage shades, it’s Byron the storyteller. And boy, has he got a scary tale for you.
Phantasmagoria’s performances of A Christmas Carol: A Ghost Story of Christmas are scheduled for 2 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday, December 22 at the Wayne Densch Performing Arts Center, 201-203 S. Magnolia Ave. Sanford. For tickets and details go to phantasmagoriaorlando.com or facebook.com/PhantasmagoriaOrlando/