forest frenzy

In ‘Daphne,’ a sapphic, surrealistic nightmare comes true

Daphne’s girlfriend Winona has stocked the kitchen with nearly every kind of tea under the sun — except for Daphne’s favorite. No matter. It’s the thought that counts.

So begins Daphne, a new play by Renae Simone Jarrett premiering at New York City’s Lincoln Center Theater. In its opening moments, the titular Daphne (Jasmine Batchelor) silently moves through an unfamiliar home with only candles to light her way. She’s just moved to a remote house in the woods with her girlfriend Winona (Keilly McQuail), and things are quickly going south for the not-so-happy couple.

Daphne delivers a captivating combination of slice-of-life drama and surrealist horror. At first, all seems well: Daphne and Winona’s time living together feels like an extended sleepover, and they revel in touching and caring for one another. But little incidents start to add up: a finger slammed in the front door, a caginess about the mysterious neighbor down the street, a love for a pet bird that must remain under a sheet at all times, lest it scream its avian head off. As the unpleasant truth of Daphne and Winona’s relationship rears its ugly head, the world strays further from reality.

Jarrett steeps her endlessly engaging script in metaphor, always pointing back to the unhealthy dynamic between its two leading women. Like the mysterious coat of what looks like bark that grows on Daphne’s finger, the dark side of their relationship at first seems small and manageable. Leave it alone, and it’ll get better on its own, won’t it? But Daphne ends up covered head to toe in bark, and Winona’s few redeeming qualities quickly pale compared to her irrational, controlling behavior. Both Batchelor and McQuail deliver subtle and grounded performances, anchoring Daphne’s fantastical story with characters that feel plucked from the real world.

Despite featuring a cast of five actors, you’ll still be surprised when a third woman enters the space. Each of the three supporting cast members appears in only one scene opposite Daphne. Still, in their short time on stage, they’re fully realized and distinct, thanks to Jarrett’s writing, natural direction by Sarah Hughes, and captivating performances. Jeena Yi as Piper is deliciously sardonic and outspoken; Naomi Lorrain as Wendy is hilarious and full of heart; and Denise Burse as The Stranger is as intriguing as you’d expect with such a mysterious role.

The production’s technical design is just as impressive as its cast and story. Set designer Maruti Evans’ run-of-the-mill forest home (albeit one with the same oppressive wallpaper on the walls, floor, and ceiling) reveals several secrets to match the decay of Daphne’s mental state and relationship. Stacey Derosier’s lighting design casts an appropriately moody pall over the story, contributing to Daphne’s tension and horror while also effectively facilitating the play’s seamless scene transitions.

(from left) Naomi Lorrain and Jasmine Batchelor in "Daphne."
(from left) Naomi Lorrain and Jasmine Batchelor in “Daphne.” Photo by Marc J. Franklin

Be warned: Daphne raises far more questions than it answers. It’s surrealism in the purest sense of the word; the impossible happens on stage, and there are no satisfying explanations. Even the narrative’s more realistic aspects leave loose ends. When the house lights come up after a tight 90 intermissionless minutes, expect to leave the theater and immediately ask your fellow theatergoers, “What do you think happened? And who was she, actually? And what did they mean by that?” Luckily, analyzing your theories about the story is nearly as exciting as the play itself.

Daphne positions a sapphic relationship at its center along with a cast of queer supporting characters, but the fact of their queerness is never at the story’s center. It’s the sort of narrative our modern cultural landscape is hungry for, with queer characters who are allowed to be messy and imperfect and much more than representation for representation’s sake.

With pitch-perfect performances and a haunting atmosphere, Daphne is impossible to look away from, even through its horror and discomfort. Getting lost in the woods has never been more tempting. ♦

Daphne runs through November 19 at the Lincoln Center’s ​​Claire Tow Theater.

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Tags: Off-Broadway
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