Something wicked this way comes in the form of "Phantasmagoria," a dance-storytelling-puppetry entertainment created and directed by John DiDonna for his Empty Spaces Theatre Co. And this pastiche of stylish costumes, lowbrow puppet humor and scary stories is quite good at being wicked.
The centerpiece of the show is a Punch and Judy puppet theater, and the centuries-old couple take center stage for stories of Cain and Abel, Vlad the Impaler, the Blood Countess and Jack the Ripper. The crude opening sketch is too long, but each subsequent appearance by the battling duo is tighter, bloodier — and funnier.
Punch and Judy provide interstitial diversions between classic horror stories, along with dancers (some from Emotions Dance) who writhe, flail and perform other disjointed, off-kilter moves to set the mood. The dancers also creepily watch the puppet shows with the audience, full of high-pitched giggles and sinister snickers.
While the talented puppeteers remain mostly hidden, the storytellers are front and center. With an urgent baritone, Roger Floyd shows dramatic flair with an Irish accent in "Earl Desmond and the Banshee."
In Kafka's "The Metamorphosis," Chris Prueitt transforms into a monster with the help of a clever costume, a dogged puppeteer and a humorously expressive face. Meanwhile, Cory Boughton and Emily Killian narrate the story and voice all its other characters in almost farcelike fashion, bringing some comic relief to the otherwise spooky proceedings.
The storytellers play different roles throughout the night, a conceit that emphasizes the surrealness of what's happening on stage. Prueitt later is a sad, childlike Frankenstein's monster, and Floyd becomes the night's creepiest character, a vampire in "Varney the Vampire or the Feast of Blood." I fear I may hear him slowly clicking his teeth, breathing raspily, in my nightmares tonight.
The spine-tingling highlight of the evening comes with Edgar Allan Poe's "The Raven," featuring Boughton as the tortured narrator. Samantha O'Hare and Flynn circle around the despairing subject of the poem, adding their voices to Boughton's cracking lines, picking up the rhymes at odd, disconcerting moments. As the poem's desperate cadence quickens, dancers whirl, "nevermore" echoes, and a circle of bodies closes in on Boughton, the ghost of his beloved Lenore and of course, the raven itself.
Despite an imposingly impressive giant puppet, the concluding "Frankenstein" segment can't help but pale after the emotional frenzy of "The Raven." And by that point, some of the stagecraft begins to repeat itself. But that doesn't detract from the production's top-notch look.
Lighting and sound, by Zanna King and Les Caulfield respectively, create the quintessential scary atmosphere — brilliant purple flashes as thunder booms. The puppets, designed by DiDonna, are horribly dead-eyed. And costumes by Jennifer Bonner embody a desperate attempt at Victorian elegance beginning to fray around the edges.
Scary never seemed so stylish.
Matthew J. Palm can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or 407-420-5038.
See for yourself
•What: Empty Spaces Theatre Co. production of 'Phantasmagoria'
•When: 8:30 p.m. Fridays & Saturdays through Oct. 30; Sundays, Oct. 24 and 31; and Monday, Oct 25
•Where: Lowndes Shakespeare Center, 812 E. Rollins St., Orlando
•Tickets: $15-$20, cash at the door
•Call: 407-328-9005 for reservations
•Online: RedChairProject.com, to reserve and pay by credit cardCopyright © 2015, The Baltimore Sun