Downtown Repertory Theatre’s latest production immerses audiences in a village haunted by dark secrets, where those who till the soil are drained of life and livelihood by an evil, oppressive overlord. Are we talking about vampirism or capitalism?
Curious or foolhardy are those who travel to this blighted land beyond the forest, the small village of Strigoia, unknown and unlikely to be found on any map, where the joy promised by an upcoming celebration fails to quell simmering unease boiling beneath the surface. A Harvest Queen is to crowned, but some dark secret seems connected to the much coveted honor. But is it a secret or rather a known truth that no one dares speak aloud? Objections are being raised by once approving citizens, who see things differently when it may be their daughter who wins.
Meanwhile, the denizens of Strigoia strive to reap a worthwhile living from the land around them, making plans to better themselves and profit from their labors instead of earning a mere subsistence. Opportunities seem to exist, but success remains elusive. The local overlord, the imposing Baron Luca, is willing to extend a loan to enterprising laborers, but assistance comes with a price – one that entails more than mere usurious interest rates. In fact, the entire village seems beholden to the Baron, as if for its very existence, so that undercurrents of resentment are held in check for fear of repercussions too terrible to contemplate….
Fangs Review: Embracing Horror
Over the course of four productions, Downtown Repertory has deftly moved from horror-adjacent to outright horror. Their first two efforts dealt with the lives of authors renowned for the terrifying tales (Poe and Mary Shelly). Last year’s Witch! explored the historical horrors of the Pendle Witch Trials while occasionally depicting demonic influence as genuine. Now with Fangs! they give us a tale of vampirism holding a small village in a virtual death grip, its inhabitants subservient to their life-draining overlord even while chafing at his domination.
For much of its length, Fangs! plays out in dramatic terms with the horror implied rather than stated. Vasile, father of one contestant, has reservations about his daughter possibly becoming the harvest queen. The implication is that he was fine with the contest until it affected his family personally, so what exactly is he afraid of? What will happen to the winner. (You can probably guess.)
Meanwhile, a mysterious woman appears in Strigoia, offering to help Vasile depose Baron Luca. Her offer seems genuine, but she is just enigmatic enough to raise doubts. Is she some kind of vampire hunter or rather a rival vampire taking out the competition? The latter theory seems at least possible after we learn that the Baron established his hold over the village by quelling a vampire outbreak, thus leaving himself alone at the top of the food chain.
All Strigoia, in other words, owes Baron Luca a debt, and the debt is paid in blood.
Not only blood, it turns out, but also in coin…
Fangs Review: The Blood is the Life, but so is Gold
In a sly but not so subtle way, Baron Luca stands in for contemporary billionaires who amass wealth while those who do the real work struggle to survive. Strictly speaking, he is a feudal overlord rather than a modern day capitalist, but the result is much the same. The village economy runs on his money, and anyone who wants to improve their lot must come to him for financing.
This becomes explicit in the case of a young man hoping to expand his horizons by taking over and cultivating unused farmland. When he applies for a loan from the Baron to fund his effort, he finds out not only that the rates are usurious but also that the law of supply and demand is working against him: the very fact that he is interested in purchasing the land, he is informed, increases the purchase price – to the point where the possibility of repaying his debt seems doubtful at best.
This explains the vexing question of why young women compete to become harvest queen: a cash prize is awarded, one that can raise the winner’s family out of poverty by paying off such debts.
In short, Baron Luca is draining the life of the villagers literally and the life of the village metaphorically, and the struggle to defeat him is not merely a matter of destroying an undead bloodsucker. It’s a sort of Marxist revolt.
Fangs Review: Immersion & Interactivity
Fangs! employs the approach to immersion and interactivity established in previous Downtown Rep productions. Like the silent witnesses in the Wicked Lit Halloween Theatre Festival, the audience follows the characters from place to place within the location, watching the action unfold but not participating. The experience is largely immersive rather than interactive.
However, at various points the audience is split into smaller groups, each witnessing a different scene, where characters may address spectators directly. In some cases, there is even one-on-one interaction requiring some level of participation (we helped a hopeful harvest queen contestant separate wheat from chaff while she explained the desperate financial reasons driving her to quest for the crown). As a consequence of this approach, playgoers cannot see whole story on a single visit, so it is advisable to attend with a group of friends who can split up and compare notes later.
Fortunately, this is not necessary in order to understand the overall plot. As in the past, Downtown Rep structures its narrative around a central hub (such as the church during the August run of Fangs! at the Heritage Square Museum), where the entire audience sees key developments at the beginning, middle, and end. These scenes lay out the central plot; other scenes explore subplots and character motivations.
Thus, Fangs! avoids the pitfall in walking plays like Tamara, which left some viewers grasping at dangling plot threads because they had not seen enough to tie everything together. Whatever narrative digressions individual spectators miss, the play is guaranteed to deliver a comprehensible and engaging experience. The only downside to this approach is that it prevents a linear progression through the performance space and, depending on the location, it can require quite a bit of repetitive walking to and from the central hub.
Fangs Review: Conclusion
Though Downtown Repertory Theatre bills its productions as immersive experiences, they are fully realized dramas with coherent narratives, not a mere opportunity to interact with characters in a themed environment. Fangs! is no exception: its appeal lies in its strong performances and storytelling, which are enhanced by immersive-interactive elements that turn spectators into participants (as when they vote to select the Harvest Queen). Though the genre elements (isolated European village plagued by an aristocratic vampire) drip with social commentary as much as blood, Fangs! delivers a gripping horror story that builds to an exciting climax in which dramatic tension explodes into a horrifying eruption of violence that racks up a body count on par with a Friday the 13th movie. It’s not blood-and-thunder from beginning to end, but the echoes reverberate long after the curtain falls.
1 – Avoid
2 – Not all bad
3 – Recommended
4 – Highly Recommended
5 – Must See
Like Downtown Repertory Theatre’s previous productions, Fangs! emphasizes drama more than horror (with some social commentary thrown in), but in the end it delivers delivers the feast of blood promised in its title. The immersive storytelling is deftly handled; the only downside is that it involves some repetitive walking back and forth, which could grow wearisome for playgoers who prefer the proscenium arch to participatory theatre.
Credits: Presented by Downtown Repertory Theatre. Directed by Devon Armstrong. Written by Devon & John Armstrong,
Fangs! runs at Mountain View Mausoleum Friday through Sunday from September 29 through November 12, plus Thursday, October 19; Monday, October 30; and Halloween Night. Performances start at 7:50pm. Tickets are $75 per person. Complimentary alcoholic beverages are included with the price of admission. The address is 2300 N Marengo Avenue in Altadena. Comfortable shoes and clothing are recommended as the experience involves considerable walking in order to follow characters from location to location. Get more information here.
Note: This review is based on the presentation of Fangs! at Heritage Square Museum in August-September.