First Folio’s World Premiere ‘Man-Beast’ succeeds with stage shivers and intrigue
By PHILIP POTEMPA
It’s always easier to achieve the haunting enticement of fear and unease for swallowing up a movie audience, compared to the challenge of translating the same edge-of-the-seat entertaining attributes to cast the similar shadows over a stage theatre audience.
But in my decade reviewing the works at First Folio Theatre at Mayslake Peabody Estate, 31st St. and Rt. 83 in Oak Brook, this is a theatre company trained and fine-tuned to know just how to thrill and chill eager audiences.
In fact, for seasonal stage offerings to fright and delight, First Folio has ownership of October.
From guided tour dramatic suspense theatrics to fascinating glimpses into the minds of Edgar Alan Poe and even his wife Virginia, First Folio has a history of Halloween stage success.
This month, First Folio has the World Premiere of Joseph Zettelmaier’s “The Man-Beast,” which continues with performances through Nov. 5. Playwright Zettelmaier has captured the attention of audiences in recent fall seasons at First Folio with the “Frankenstein” stage nod titled “The Gravedigger” in 2014, and last year, with “Dr. Seward’s Dracula.” With a werewolf theme, “The Man-Beast” is billed as “the final installment of Zettelmaier’s classic horror trilogy.” Of the three works, “The Man-Beast” is my ferocious favorite, blending romance, danger and despair with top-notch scare tactics. Set in the 18th century French countryside, it is the tale of a mysterious wild animal ravaging the livestock and inhabitants. When King Louis XVI offers a bounty reward for the savage creature, legend and lore lead all to believe it is a Loup-Garou, the savage werewolf of French telling.
Clocking in at two hours with one intermission, “The Man-Beast” is superbly directed by Hayley Rice, who has fine-tuned every scene to provide maximum audience impact. The two-character cast has enough talent and energy to power what seems like a cast of countless more. Elizabeth Laidlaw plays a reclusive widow who lives on a desolate stretch of wooded terrain. Her character, Virginie Allard, is also suspected to be a witch because of her strange behavior and fondness for nature and animals. Her nearest neighbor in the wilderness is a mountain hermit she barely knows named Jean Chastel, played with power and precision by Aaron Christensen.
The unlikely duo have a chance encounter, and after conversation, decide to team and conspire to reap the benefits of the reward offered by the King’s challenge to capture the mythical monster wreaking havoc. Soon, the two find themselves competing with each other’s talents while drawn to their other commonalities.
Laidlaw embodies the spirit and determination of her character and exhibits a cat-like demeanor and cunning sense of self-assurance. When pitted against the pride and power-driven counter character Chastel, as so keenly portrayed by Christensen, the two are at their desperate best when fighting for survival. Rather than the usual credit of “fight choreography,” this production lists Rachel Flesher as “violence designer,” and she deserves accolades for seamless scenes of struggles and dominance.
Filled with twists and turns and unsuspecting plot points around every corner, “The Man-Beast” is the hit of Halloween 2017.
The artistic team includes a very detailed and beautiful scenic design by Angela Weber Miller, who has constructed a cottage in the woods which includes an impressive stone fireplace, complete with chimney, a full pioneer cook’s kitchen and an upstairs loft. The varied and interesting properties designed by Vivian Knouse range from taxidermy birds and animals to tools, furnishings and assorted dried herbs, potions and curious eye-catching elements. The spooky, spot-on lighting design is by Michael McNamara paired with original music and sound design by Christopher Kriz. The costume design by Rachel Lambert is extraordinary to depict the time and era.
Another reason First Folio has traditionally found unparalleled success with fall season offerings during the month of Halloween is because of the picture-perfect surrounding setting. The Tudor architectural design of the manor house at Mayslake Peabody Estate is ideal for such plays steeped in legend and history. It took three years, from 1919 to 1921, for the country estate to be constructed for coal baron and Democratic politician Francis Stuyvesant Peabody. Today, it makes a perfect theatre setting for hosting an intimate audience stage experience.
First Folio and Mayslake Peabody Estate are easy to get to from the East-West Tollway (I-88) or the Stevenson Expressway (I-55). Free parking is available on the grounds. Tickets are $34 Wednesdays and Thursdays (seniors and students are $29), and $44 on Fridays through Sundays (seniors and students are $39). Three and four show subscriptions are available for $63-$115. Season subscriptions and individual tickets may be purchased by calling the box office at 630-986-8067 or online at www.firstfolio.org.
Philip Potempa is a veteran journalist and published author. He can be reached firstname.lastname@example.org.