"Phantasmagoria III" is the theatrical version of telling spooky stories around the dying embers of a campfire. And in that comparison lies a cautionary tale: Those simple fireside stories can be just as unnerving — if not more so — than the gussied-up equivalent with its puppets, fancy costumes and cast of dancers.
For true thrills come from the stories themselves and the delivery, not necessarily the trimmings.
Not that I would disparage the trimmings of this, the third installment in Empty Spaces Theatre Co(llaboration)'s "Phantasmagoria" series.
As always, Jennifer Bonner's costumes are deliciously decadent and manage to be whimsical and sensual. Susan Woodbury's vivid makeup and Zanna Paulson's eerie mood-lighting add to the atmosphere.
A new wrinkle this year is the show's theater. It's in the Shakespeare Center's Patrons' Room, which makes this "Phantasmagoria" in the round and gives the creepy cast more chances to directly leer at audience members.
That intimacy provided the most visceral fear for me during an athletic sword fight directed by Bill Warriner. The two sword-swinging performers — both of whom I have previously critiqued — let those blades whiz by just a shade closer than necessary. Oh, I jest — I think — but there were other moments that made the hair stand up on the back of my neck.
The darker the story, the more effective the chills — so the prize-winner of the evening is "The White Wolf of Hartz Mountains," about a woman (a beautifully brittle, then beastly, Samantha O'Hare) who chillingly dispatches her stepchildren.
Also top-notch is a re-telling of Edgar Allan Poe's "The Tell-Tale Heart," with Joshua Geoghagan as the increasingly manic murderer who hears his guilt reverberate.
But sometimes, the setup of the Patrons' Room works against the show. Acoustics can muddle words — the first half of "The Wild Huntsman" was completely lost to me. And with the audience in the round, raunchy puppet Punch (of "Punch and Judy" fame) is a traveling man, attached to a performer's arm. Unfortunately, his recorded voice doesn't travel with him, disrupting the fantasy of this twilight world to remind the audience of regular, old audio-speaker technology.
Not to pick too much on poor old Punch, but his story — "The Legend of Spring Heeled Jack" — also suffers from a confusion of accents. It's set in London, but the players seem perplexed as to whether they are using British accents or not.
It's an important point because vocal tricks, of course, are key in storytelling. The performers fare better in other respects. Cameron Gagne has a striking way of dropping her voice into its lowest register. And Trenell Mooring pulses with excitement in the upbeat story of "Aaron Kelly's Bones."
There's still life in these deathly tales.
• What: An evening of spooky storytelling and dance created by John DiDonna
• Length: 90 minutes, no intermission
• Where: Lowndes Shakespeare Center, 812 E. Rollins St., Orlando
• When: 8:30 p.m. Thursdays-Sundays, Monday, Oct. 29, and Wednesday, Oct. 31; through Oct. 31
• Tickets: $20; $15 students and seniors
• Call: 407-328-9005Copyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun