Inspired by a gory remnant of French folklore, The Man-Beast is the second offering of Know Theatre’s season-long exploration of “fear itself.” Sexy, surprising and bitingly funny, The Man-Beast is a chilling rendering of the werewolf, drawn straight from the legend’s origins.
Written by Know Theatre favorite Joseph Zettelmaier (of 2016’s Pulp and 2015’s All Childish Things), The Man-Beast begins in 18th-century France where helpless mountain villages are menaced by a bloodthirsty creature that kills freely. Reported to be massive and unstoppable, the animal has earned a nickname: the Beast of Gévaudan. Some in the mountains say that the Beast is more than a hungry wolf — they say it is a loup garou, a werewolf infected with a sickness that can be passed on to the humans it bites. Even the King, safely ensconced in far-off Versailles, is desperate to end the slaughter; he has offered a lavish reward hoping to incentivize hunters to shoot the Beast. Over the course of its two-hour run time, this production ensnares its audience by luring viewers deep into a wilderness where the story finally reveals a dark and shocking heart.
The two main characters are Jean Chastel (Jim Hopkins) and Virginie (Jennifer Joplin). After bursting into her home uninvited, Jean’s booming, fearsome bluster is immediately matched by Virginie’s no-nonsense, homesteader grit. When she levels her long rifle at him, the stage is set for the two. They spar with words and wit and not even a little bit of wooing. Hopkins’ Jean is a rugged hermit turned boorish by decades spent alone in the woods. Joplin’s Virginie is a bitter outcast with a strange assortment of talents: herbcraft, healing and taxidermy. Virginie is rumored to be a witch, although villagers are not above visiting her when in need — or when a beloved pet has died and they want it stuffed. Both Jean and Virginie crave connection, but are too savvy, too seasoned and too wounded to be vulnerable, to truly trust one another even as they embark on a dangerous, high-stakes endeavor that binds their fates. The volume and force of Hopkins’ performance is appropriately overpowering, tempered only by Joplin’s acidic pragmatism and fearlessness. The pair has a magnetic partnership on stage: two pros sinking their teeth into juicy material.
Staged in Know’s Underground lobby-bar, director Brant Russell’s production uses the intimacy of the space and the proximity of the performers to the audience to heighten the show’s tension, upping both the wow-factor and the fear-factor, although certain sightlines are frustratingly underwhelming at peak moments of the show. The set is small and tight and nearly filled solely with a long table.
At first, it is easy enough to underestimate — how scary could a two-person show played in this tiny space really be? But Russell uses the claustrophobic cubby-hole like a pressure cooker, forcing Jean and Virginie to collide and combust. Andrew Hungerford, the scenic and lighting designer, wields expert craftsmanship that invites the audience right inside Virginie’s rustic life, where she eats, sleeps and stuffs foxes and pheasants. The fire in her hearth is the only warmth for miles and miles of violent, oppressive dark. Hungerford fully succeeds in conjuring a riveting atmosphere.
Noelle Johnston’s costuming is not only period appropriate and specific, but beautiful and subtle in how it evokes the individuals inside the clothing: Jean is a slob; Virginie is never far from her knife. Johnston is as talented a storyteller as she is a seamstress. And though the entire story takes place within the relative safety of Virginie’s cabin, Douglas Borntrager’s chilling soundscape will have you sleeping with the lights on.
It’s not easy to scare a live audience, but the Know pulls it off by letting the audience relax into the script’s humor and Jean and Virginie’s scheming. Devilish and delicious, The Man-Beast is a near-perfect Halloween fairy tale with meaty questions at its core: Who are we, really? Who can be trusted? Are there monsters among us? Or worst of all: Are there monsters inside us?
The Man-Beast, presented by Know Theatre of Cincinnati, continues through Nov. 10. Tickets and more info: knowtheatre.com.