"The Man-Beast" -- ★ ★ ★ ½
Three years ago, First Folio Theatre in Oak Brook produced the first in artistic associate Joseph Zettelmaier's horror trilogy. "The Gravedigger," inspired by Mary Shelley's "Frankenstein," premiered in 2014. "Dr. Seward's Dracula," based on Bram Stoker's novel, followed in 2016. Each provided requisite chills and provocative issues to ponder.
But neither induced the gasps that accompanied Zettelmaier's latest, a savage werewolf-inspired two-hander about love and betrayal titled "The Man-Beast."
The Michigan-based playwright, it seems, has saved his best for last.
A tale of greed, loneliness, lust and vengeance, "The Man-Beast" ushers in First Folio's female-centric season with a formidable performance by Elizabeth Laidlaw, who stars opposite Aaron Christensen in director Hayley Rice's daring, vigorous premiere.
Set during the 18th century, "The Man-Beast" centers around a pair of outcasts: Virginie Allard (Laidlaw, a powerful presence in every sense of the word) and Jean Chastel (Christensen, a worthy counterpart), fellow hermits in a heavily forested region of southern France.
The action unfolds in Virginie's off-putting but oddly cozy abode, a wonderfully rustic cabin designed by Angela Weber Miller and featuring an assortment of taxidermic critters -- including a life-size bear -- courtesy of props designer Vivian Knouse.
The reclusive Virginie is an expert taxidermist who makes ferocious keepsakes of the dead animals villagers drop at her door. In this cabin, Virginie rules, a point she brings home by driving her enormous hunting knife into a table when she arrives to find an unwelcome visitor awaiting her.
Jean is an unchurched, embittered hunter on the trail of a mysterious creature -- known to the townspeople as loup-garou or werewolf -- which has terrorized the countryside for three years, killing 113 people.
Bit while hunting the wolf, Jean seeks out Virginie, a healer (and suspected witch) who "knows a thing about a thing." The attraction between them is immediate and fierce. But it turns out Jean wants more from Virginie than a sex partner. He wants a cohort who will help him collect the bounty France's king has placed on the loup-garou. He offers to share half the bounty with her if she creates, from the carcass he provides, a fearsome beast that he will use to deceive the king and his court.
For Jean, the ruse will cement his reputation as the region's best hunter. For Virginie, an artist at heart, it will demonstrate to the world her considerable skills.
She agrees, and a personal and professional partnership is born. Neither the affair nor the business arrangement progresses smoothly, not for these strong-willed, independent people, each of whom harbors secrets.
As is the case in a patriarchal society, theirs is an unequal partnership, with Jean taking full credit for their collaboration. While the hunter basks in praise, the anonymous artist suffers in silence.
Moreover, the bond that initially united them -- a shared desire for isolation and the recognition that they belong on the fringe -- becomes strained as Jean increasingly seeks the society he once rejected.
The well-matched Laidlaw and Christensen deliver passionate performances that reveal layers of ambiguity and conflict within characters struggling to reconcile the natural and civilized worlds.
It's an intriguing balancing act, one Laidlaw executes magnificently in a bold, bracing production that marks a bit of a departure for the Oak Brook theater.
Be forewarned, "The Man-Beast" is not for everyone, certainly not for children or more sensitive theatergoers. But for fans of gothic-style drama, it's a show with bite.
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Location: First Folio Theatre, Mayslake Peabody Estate, 1717 W. 31st St., Oak Brook, (630) 986-8067 or firstfolio.org
Showtimes: 8 p.m. Wednesday and Friday; 3 p.m. Thursday and Sunday; 4 and 8 p.m. Saturday; through Nov. 5
Running time: About 1 hour, 50 minutes including intermission
Parking: Free lot adjacent to the estate
Rating: For adults; includes mature subject matter, violence and strong language