Here I was, back again in front of the blacked-out windows of Zombie Joe’s Underground Theater but something was wrong. Zombie and his merry band of misfits were nowhere to be found, the theater was under new management and the new tenants want nothing more than to live in your mouth.

I Want To Live In Your Mouth is an immersive theatrical experience from David Ruzicka and Eric M. Vosmeier, who together have credits spanning from Disney Imagineering to working with JFI Productions on Creep and The Willows. David and Eric were there that night directing and attending to guests and after a short chat about some of their previous work, I was instructed to head to the back of the theater and sit in the lighted seat nestled in an alcove near the entrance. As I take my seat, I’m hit by a wave of dread. I wasn’t sure whether it was because this was a solo experience and I didn’t have the comfort of fellow victims by my side or because I knew what terrors these two were capable of creating but sitting there in that dark void, I was holding my safe word close. Suddenly, a man’s voice can be heard. He muses on the nature of dreams, about how they provide a safe place to confront the things that scare us. But what if they weren’t as harmless as we believe them to be? What if dreams were a sort of demilitarized zone between us and a world that would see us torn to shreds if only we let it in? Why did I let it in?

As the lights turn on, a woman (Terra Strong) enters the room. She talks about how she stumbled upon this world as a child and offers me a chance to see it for myself. Serving as the tour guide down through these layers of hell, her presence is at once comforting and unnerving, a kind soul twisted by her demons to unknown ends and with questionable intentions. It would be a disservice to detail the specifics of the journey that followed but I will say that they managed to truly transform a space that I have become quite familiar with over the years. While the scale of the set pieces can only be so grand in this venue, they nonetheless transform this macabre theatre landmark into a fantastical hellscape with moving mechanisms, dark tunnels, and surreal, cavernous expanses. While the sets alone are impressive, it’s not altogether unexpected for this team to have put together some impressive set pieces. What truly sets this experience apart from the pack is the impressive puppetry.

They could have gotten some actors with masks to pop out from these set pieces and the show would have been perfectly fine but instead, they opted to use puppets to represent the world’s inhabitants and that makes for an atmosphere that is unlike any other show. It might seem counter-intuitive that a puppet would be more imposing than a human but you’re still interacting with something that is directed by an actor, it’s just conveyed in a completely alien form factor that feels more uncanny than interacting with a person in a suit. The presentation is what ultimately brings it together, with the puppets’ repulsive, glistening skin catching the dim light, allowing you to see just enough to put your imagination into overload.

I Want To Live In Your Mouth is a fantastic show with compelling acting that does an incredible job convincing your irrational monkey brain that what you’re looking at is an actual threat but if I was to offer one critique, it’s ambitions do seem conspicuously constrained by its length and venue. It’s 20 minutes long and feels 10 thanks to the continuous flow of surprises but it doesn’t really feel like it was written to be 20 minutes. It feels very much like a prologue missing its second and third acts and as I went to rejoin my guide for what I presumed to be the show’s climax, I found myself looking out onto Lankershim Blvd. It’s $45 a ticket and that probably doesn’t make financial sense to extend to a longer experience but I think it could succeed as a more fleshed-out experience at a higher price point, potentially with groups of 3 or 4 at a time. Having this be a solo experience does enhance the feeling of helplessness but I’m not sure it’s essential to this type of show. I Want To Live In Your Mouth is an exotic and unexpected appetizer that satisfies in its own right while making me hunger for the full entree. That might not ever materialize, though, and if it doesn’t it would be a shame to not appreciate what we have, so avoid the true nightmare of FOMO and check this one out.

Tickets are available for I Want To Live In Your Mouth through May 5th.