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Bite: Surprise (theatre review)

Countess Izadora’s vampire clan invites human guests back into their home – this time for a birthday party in Bite: Surprise, the latest production at the Count’s Den in downtown Los Angeles. Billed as an “interactive party experience” instead of an “interactive dinner party,” the latest installment of the Bite saga offers a slightly scaled-down version of the franchise: the cast is pretty much limited to Izadora’s nuclear family, and there is no sit-down dinner; however, there are snacks, cocktails, and of course birthday cake. Even with the smaller cast, the immersive play easily provides ninety minutes of dysfunctional family drama, tongue-in-cheek perversity, and even a genuine moment or two of horror.

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Bite: Surprise Review – Happy Birthday!

Bite: Surprise centers on the 1,222nd birthday of Countess Izadora’s brother, the narcissistic Uncle Leofwine (and we mean “narcissistic” quite literally – Leofwine is first seen getting off to an old silent film of himself doing a striptease). The story involves an houngan named Papa, who has been hired by the Countess to find a pureblood among the human guests, who will eventually receive (unwanted) special attention from Leofwine. Meanwhile, Izadora’s enjoyably bitchy daughter seeks to undermine the festivities by substituting the planned entertainment with an annoyingly bubbly dancer – a decision that will have surprise consequences after the pureblood sacrifice turns out not quite as expected.

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In the manner of a silent movie comedy, the storyline serves mostly to link together scenes that are the entertainment’s true raison d’etre. The audience of one dozen guests is broken up into small groups and instructed to follow characters into different rooms of the Count’s Den, where little vignettes play out, up close and personal – sometimes uncomfortably so, as when the nearly nude Leofwine invites guests to his room to help him dress. Fortunately, the campy tone takes the edge off the salacious tone, and there is a safe word (“submarine”) for guests who feel their personal boundaries are being crossed.

To some extent, enjoyment of these scenes depends on audience’s willingness to interact; they tend to work best when the requirements are clear – like making a phone call to change the evening’s entertainment. In other cases, it is uncertain how much latitude there is for interaction. For instance, when a character begs for help, would it be possible to say, “Sure, take my hand, and I will fight our way out of here”? (Probably not. We’re told at the top of the evening that the safe word works both ways; it can be used by the cast to put a stop to rambunctious guests.) Consequently, the vignettes can feel slightly unsatisfying – as if the audience had been cast in in a role but not given the dialogue or scene directions.

That said, Bite: Surprise has the most powerful ending of the series. Productions at the Count’s Den tend to conclude with the audience shooed from the performance space – told to run for their lives; this time the ending gives us a reason to flee – something more than being told to. The original Bite ended on an anticlimax; Bite: Season’s Bleedings played its gruesome conclusion for laughs. The conclusion of Bite: Surprise goes, literally and figuratively, for the jugular, the burlesque tone eclipsed, for once, by a dramatic crescendo of horror.

Bite: Surprise Review – Conclusion

The open question of the Bite saga is the extent to which Izadora’s hospitality guarantees safety for invited guests against predations by her vampire clan. Past iterations in the series tended to keep the vampire attacks, if any, offstage. This created a sort of lingering tease, in which the implied threat of vampirism never fully materialized.

Bite: Surprise violates the apparent taboo against attacking guests in a clever way that blurs the distinction between performers and participants. Moreover, the assaults take place in full view, providing a memorable climax that takes the play deeper into horror territory than the tongue-in-cheek series has gone in the past. Combined with the new voodoo rituals, these elements distinguish Bite: Surprise from its predecessors and compensate for any vignettes that leave the audience wondering what, if anything, they are supposed to do.

Returning cast members nail their characters once again. New characters and performers fit right in, particularly Papa, such a commanding presence that he probably deserves his own spinoff. Until then, this new Bite adds some interesting flavors to the familiar fare at the Count’s Den.

Bite: Surprise!

Bottom Line

The basic menu remains the same, but Bite: Surprise spices things up, layering the tongue-in-cheek perversity with a bit more genuine horror. The narrative structure remains loose, and not all the interactive vignettes tickle the palate, but the new elements are more than enough to make this sequel stand on its own.

Bite: Surprise continues at the Count’s Den on Fridays & Saturdays through March 5. Tickets are $75. Guests must be 21 or older. The address is 1039 S Olive Street in downtown Los Angeles, CA 90015. Get more information at thecountsden.com.

Bite: Surprise interactive party experience
A dejected Papa contemplates the bungled human sacrifice.

Steve Biodrowski, Administrator

A graduate of USC film school, Steve Biodrowski has worked as a film critic, journalist, and editor at Movieline, Premiere, Le Cinephage, The Dark Side., Cinefantastique magazine, Fandom.com, and Cinescape Online. He is currently Managing Editor of Cinefantastique Online and owner-operator of Hollywood Gothique.