Deep in the Woods: "The Man Beast" is haunted, moody, and anxious


Jonathan Davidson and Virginie Allard in Penny Seats' The Man Beast.

Jonathan Davidson plays the haunted Jean Chastel in Penny Seats' The Man Beast. Photo via The Penny Seats' Facebook.

’Tis the season for witches and werewolves.

Also—if the Penny Seats Theatre Company’s production of Joseph Zettelmaier’s The Man Beast is any indication—taxidermy, folklore, French accents, and skullduggery.

Set in 1767 France, The Man Beast unfolds in the secluded home of healer and taxidermist Virginie Allard (Brittany Batell), who’s all too aware of her local reputation as “the witch of the woods.” When fellow outcast Jean Chastel (Jonathan Davidson), injured while hunting a legendarily lethal wild beast, barrels his way into the widow’s workshop, Virginie tends to his wounds, and the two form an uneasy alliance.

Yes, the two become lovers, but they also hatch a plan to collect King Louis XVI’s generous bounty for the beast. Jean notes that there have been no deaths in the nearby village since his run-in with it, so, his argument goes, he may well have succeeded in killing the creature. In the absence of more tangible proof, though, he must travel to a far-off menagerie to procure the carcass of a wild, exotic animal, then bring it back to Virginie to prepare it for a dramatic presentation at court.

The pair’s plot succeeds, but as we all know, money can’t buy happiness, and the bond between the two starts to fray.

Directed by Julia Garlotte, the Penny Seats’ two-hour production certainly looks the part, with an on-stage collection of mounted creatures and pelts, as well as items like mortars and pestles. (Forrest Hejkal designed the rustic cabin set that integrates these pieces into its hunting-lodge-like ecosystem.) Plus, after feeling bewitched by the moody, darkly tense music playing before the play started, I asked producer Lauren London if it was from a film soundtrack, and she informed me that sound designer Joe Caradonna composed the music specifically for the production—so full bonus points for this original atmospheric touch.

Jonathan Davidson and Virginie Allard in Penny Seats' The Man Beast. Photo via The Penny Seats' Facebook.

Jonathan Davidson and Virginie Allard in Penny Seats' The Man Beast. Photo via The Penny Seats' Facebook.

Opening night attracted a pretty full house, which was great for the Penny Seats, but presented me, a few rows back, with an unsolvable logistical problem: because the venue has chairs on a flat (rather than tiered) surface, I couldn’t see the actors at all when they sat at the table situated downstage, which stood on the same level as the seats. Because I could only hear them, and not see their faces, I felt distracted from what should, ideally, be a riveting mental chess game between two guarded, untrusting characters. 

Plus, even when they were on the raised stage behind the table, much of what happened near the floor was similarly tough to see. So this “staging choices vs. venue considerations” issue, paired with a first act that takes a while to find its footing and gather momentum, left me a bit cold by intermission.

The story picks up steam in the second act, however, and a satisfying surprise makes it easier to forgive the show’s earlier shortcomings. Davidson and Batell play off each other well and occasionally give off heat as two lonely, damaged outsiders—Jen Pan and Joe Wright do impressive work as the production’s fight and intimacy choreographers (perhaps not surprisingly, the two elements collide at times)—but I wondered if the actors’ youth made the material hit differently than it would with older actors in the roles. For instance: though Virginie tells of her widowhood, and her time living in isolation, a middle-aged (or older) actress would suggest, without additional words being spoken, the profound, harrowing depth of her suffering, by virtue of how much of her life was already behind her.

Even so, the actors—costumed by Emily Brod, and eerily lit by Bennett Black—evoke a palpable sense of anxiety and longing.

Which is pretty much the backbone of any good ghost story. 

Jenn McKee is a former staff arts reporter for The Ann Arbor News, where she primarily covered theater and film events, and also wrote general features and occasional articles on books and music.

"The Man Beast" runs through October 22 at the Stone Chalet Event Center, 1917 Washtenaw Avenue, Ann Arbor. For tickets, showtimes, and more information, visit