When I first looked at the promo materials for Phantasmagoria, I thought that their “Wickedest Tale of All” was going to have more circus-arts integrated into it and be much more of a grand, goth spectacle. As such, I rounded up a hottie goth-date last night and went in expecting some fairly fun and flashy entertainment but nothing particularly substantive or memorable. I ended up being delightfully surprised to find that, although it was certainly fun and flashy, it was a very slick and intelligent telling of some wonderful horror stories. This show focused on works of Edgar Allan Poe and Charles Dickens, but also had a Hindu story about a churel and a reading of Alexander Pushkin’s “The Demons” as part of a pseudo-encore.
The work began with a prologue in which a young girl and a woman are in an attic and come across a chest in which they find a mask and a book, the opening of which kind of summons the rest of the cast to begin the show. It reminded me somewhat of the rather bizarre opening of Taymor’s screen adaptation of “Titus Andronicus:” it did a good job of setting the mood for a telling of horror stories — invoking the fear and wonderment of a child in a way that I thought was just wrong for “Titus” but was absolutely appropriate for this show. From there the cast took us through “Madman’s Manuscript” and “Captain Murderer” by Dickens, “The Masque of the Red Death” and, in pieces, “The Conquerer Worm” by Poe, a traditional Hindu tale of a churel, a nursery rhyme called “Gammer Gurton’s Garland” with which I was not previously familiar, and the aforementioned Pushkin in the pseudo-encore. All of this was presented in a period of about an hour without intermission or any other kind of significant pause.
The thing that struck me most about Phantasmagoria’s production was their obvious love for the authors’ original language of the tales that they performed. Rather than just doing dramatic adaptations of the stories, it was more like a dramatized reading with narrators and a Greek chorus. Although I’m not familiar enough with the stories to know for sure that they didn’t assume some poetic license with them, if there were changes then they were minor enough that the brilliance of the pens of Dickens and Poe were as much a feature of the show as the performances and stage craft. The actor playing the woman who would become the churel even spoke her lines in Hindi, which were then translated by the Greek chorus for the benefit of the audience.
The costuming was made up of stylized Victorian fashions in black, gray, and crimson accentuated with a variety of memento mori. The makeup might be described as being somewhere between undead and horribly damaged: faces were pale and full of shadowing and there were a lot of fairly realistic scratches around the exposed flesh. Each performer, even if they were mostly in the chorus, had a unique character and even had character names listed in the program that are unrelated to the characters they were playing.
This production was on 7 Stages’ back stage, which is small and intimate and has little room for complex staging techniques, which may have been why there wasn’t much in the way of aerial work, fire play, or tumbling/stacking going on. The stage was set with a couple of striped chests and, otherwise, relied on slides and animations projected above the performers’ heads such that the audience was left to choose between seeing them or the performance. I found the performers much more visually arresting, so I really saw very little of what was projected. The accompaniment was mostly recorded music, though there was one performer who also would occasionally bounce up to the platform to the right of the stage to (enjoyably) play the cello during some transitions.
The transitions themselves were clever: between each full story, a stanza of Poe’s “The Conquering Worm” was recited. It was wonderfully appropriate for a theatrical production. There were also two divertimenti presented with choreographed dance: one featuring belly dance following the tale of the churel and the other presented as part of a pseudo-encore consisting of solo classical ballet choreography, performed capably and gracefully with lots of pretty pique turns en pointe, that created an image much like a classic music box. There was also a waltz featuring the full cast as part of the introduction to the program. The choreography for all of this wasn’t exactly complicated or exciting, but it was enjoyable as well as solid and appropriate to the varying skill level of the performers, who all handled their parts well, and it created a very enchanting atmosphere.
At the end, as I said, there was a pseudo-encore, which was presented as something a bit more personal and special for the Atlanta audiences. I mentioned the brief, but wonderfully charming, ballet solo by Dion Leonhard DiDonna, and the bonus reading of Pushkin’s “The Demons.” The reader of the Pushkin was a former cast member who now lives in the Atlanta area and is also a visual artist. He presented a gift of a mixed-media portrait of Leonhard DiDonna and her husband, who was essentially the MC of the program, made of pages from a volume of Lord Byron’s work. I realized how completely engaged I was with the performance when I found myself tearing up when I saw her do the same. Overall, I found the production completely enchanting. I don’t think that I went more than a moment without a smile on my face and the visual presentation created by the blocking and performances was absolutely riveting. I really hope that I’m able to attend their next performance here in October.