Phantasmagoria brings Nightmares to SLU

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“Once a story is chosen, it must be told. Once a story is begun, it must be finished.” This is the creed of Phantasmagoria, a wildly entertaining and deeply unsettling Victorian horror troupe that travels the country telling tales of the macabre. Saint Leo University was the latest stop on their “Wickedest Tales of All” tour. The troupe converted the Black Box Theatre into a world of dark fantasy Jan. 21.

Originating in Orlando, Phantasmagoria was created by, and also stars, John DiDonna.

“For years I’d had this idea of this sort of horror-circus, but I didn’t know what it was,” said DiDonna, thinking back to the troupe’s origins. “I went and saw a puppet show that was done up in Atlanta, and it was really inspiring…so I finally started coming up with an idea.”

A year into its production, DiDonna’s troupe was getting incredible recognition and found itself in popular demand. The troupe has been performing for nine years, with “Wickedest Tales of All” being their third touring show.

Phantasmagoria consists of a whimsically dressed cast acting out their versions of tales of horror by such authors as Edgar Allen Poe, Charles Dickens, H.P. Lovecraft, and more.

“We like to take stories that are not horror stories and turn them into works of horror fiction,” DiDonna said. “We like to find the whimsical and the macabre in every story.”

Each show features a different set of tales and a slew of impressive and enchanting visual effects and choreography, including aerial acrobatics, large-scale puppetry, fire-breathing, and weapons combat. And the cast isn’t shy about delivering the scares at close range; throughout the performance, they artfully climb their way into the audience and make themselves right at home.

“It’s a mix of dance, combat, storytelling, and movement,” said DiDonna.

The troupe is composed of actors of varying ages and a variety of talents from all walks of life. Some underwent the rigorous audition process after seeing the show in their hometowns, others, like 11-year-old Candido Soto, were invited to try out.

“It was actually on free comic book day,” recalls Soto. “All my family was there, and Phantasmagoria was there, and they kind of, well, just took me.”

“We stole him and his family!” laughed DiDonna.

Rachel Rees, who plays the role of Ankah, was introduced to the troupe after taking a class with DiDonna at Valencia College and starring in his production of the musical “Chicago.”

“After that, I got an invitation to the troupe, so I didn’t have to audition,” explained Rees. “I’ve been with them ever since.”

Phantasmagoria and each of its tales mean something different to each of its actors.

“It’s a very unique experience that not many kids get to have,” said Soto. “I find it very enjoyable.”

“Every year it’s more,” Rees added. “What’s really neat, when you are incorporated into this, is that you learn everything. When you get here, whatever you want to learn, we want to collaborate with you and bring something new to the table.”

DiDonna hopes that the act will bring new generations back to classic literature.

“I want them to take away a love of the literature,” DiDonna expressed. “That, and there are many ways to tell a story.”

Phantasmagoria is truly a wonderful, unique sight to behold and Saint Leo hopes to welcome them back for some all-new thrills and chills. The acting is powerful, the lighting eerie, and the music haunting. From the moment the lights dim, the audience feels like they have become ensnared by Phantasmagoria’s ghostly tale, and there’s no way out until it’s been finished.

To learn more about Phantasmagoria or if you are interested in auditioning for the troupe, see Facebook for more information

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