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Theatre Review by Howard Miller - October 23, 2023

Jasmine Batchelor
Photo by Marc J. Franklin
A thrum of fear and dread saturates playwright Renae Simone Jarrett's cryptic new play Daphne, opening tonight at Lincoln Center's Claire Tow Theater. Indeed, the play could be said to be all about fear and dread, a case of style taking precedence over substance. It is likely you will never fully unravel its mysteries, but if you can live with that, there is enough to keep you intrigued if off balance for pretty much the entirety of its 90-minute running time, during which uncertainty will be your constant companion.

Daphne takes place in a house deep in the woods (Maruti Evans's assertive set design incorporates oversized images of autumn leaves covering the space from floor to ceiling), where the title character (played by Jasmine Batchelor) has moved in with her disquieting girlfriend Winona (Keilly McQuail). The house's isolation is unsettling in itself, but then inexplicable things begin to happen.

There is mention of witchcraft, of a river in the forest where Daphne swims and imagines she is being watched, of a mysterious and unseen vandal who, as Winona tells it, "comes in through the keyhole while we're asleep and enters my dreams." The passage of time bends in odd ways. Some of Daphne's friends from the city (played by Jeena Yi and Naomi Lorrain) and, later, a stranger (Denise Burse) inexplicably appear and then vanish in the twinkling of an eye.

Ghostly it is, but it would not be entirely accurate to think of this as a ghost story; nothing so specific as, say, Levi Holloway's haunted house play Grey House that ran on Broadway this past summer. Rather it is more of a psychological puzzle, one that is being related by an unreliable narrator (or a mischievous playwright) who seems to relish guiding us along misleading paths, with lighting designer Stacey Derosier's creative use of contrasts in brightness, shadows, and periods of darkness providing a much-needed assist as we grope our way in search of meaning.

Then, too, there are those disconcerting sounds (designed by Sadah Espii Proctor), so that even the insistent whistle of a teapot may make you jump. And we won't even get into that creature hidden within the sheet-covered cage next to the front door, or the odd physical changes that are happening to Daphne, changes that give a nod toward her mythological namesake but for which, like everything else, there is no overt explanation.

We could be in a world of dreams, delusions, or hallucinations, any of which you are welcome to incorporate into your own interpretation, along with uncovering the who, what, where, when, and why of it all. The playwright, director Sarah Hughes, the cast, and the design team seem to have had a grand time in taking on the challenge of evoking the surreal, though one can imagine this aspect of the play faring better in the hands of a filmmaker with a wide range of cinematic magic tricks to play with. Meanwhile, a tad more clarity to go along with the evocative visual and auditory sensory output would help considerably in making Daphne into a more thrilling, if less enigmatic, theatrical experience.

Through November 19, 2023
Claire Tow Theater
Lincoln Center, 150 W 65th Street (between Broadway and Amsterdam)
Tickets online and current performance schedule: