Daphne (Julia Kwamya) wants to be “a girl with class.” This mantra seems relatively harmless, but in “The Woman Who Turned Into a Tree,” her fascination with how she is perceived by others is nothing short of obsession. The story follows Daphne’s preoccupation to its extreme ends and delivers a suitable allegory for the evolving pervasiveness of maintaining one’s image, even if the performance itself has room to improve.
Swedish playwright Lisa Langseth may be onto something when she creates the haunting world of “The Woman Who Turned Into a Tree” with a timely and pessimistic view of the modern world. The structure of the play follows the story of the water-nymph Daphne from Greek mythology, but substitutes the unwanted, ever-watching eye of Apollo with a different kind of overseer.
This weekend, the Georgetown University Theater and Performance Studies program partnered with the Swedish Embassy to produce a reading of a new play titled “The Woman Who Turned Into a Tree.” The reading was one of four shows playing from Sept. 19 to 28 as a part of the festival “Borders and Their Shadows,” a Georgetown event featuring new plays depicting the different kinds of borders present throughout life: countries, social class and states of being.
This particular show was a dramatic reading: The actress sat on a stool, reading from the script and acting with her voice and physicality only. This simplicity did not mean the story did not evoke color and imagery. Daphne wore a two-piece cotton candy-colored suit to assist in initially developing her character, and the script’s rich writing attempted to transcend the bare set design with mixed success.
Daphne is not your typical heroine. Far from an easy character to root for, her worldview is jaded, superficial and calculated; she looks at other people only as avenues for attention and status. She drones on incessantly about what she wears and how much it costs and the quality of the sofa she sits on. She reduces everything in her world to its cost and materials.
Even when alone, Daphne must act and attempt to play the part of someone watchable and interesting. Her existence is interwoven with how she is seen, and this pressure gradually begins to weigh heavily on her soul.
The show depicts her journey hitting rock bottom, so desperate to convince herself of the status she so desires that she seduces a married man, buys thousands of dollars worth of designer clothes and then quits her job. The story reaches its climax as she becomes so overcome with loneliness that she materializes into the fir tree outside her window as she does in the Greek myth. The title of the show should have warned you.
This fantastical outcome could have some sort of real-world meaning: Perhaps she took her own life, and the tree symbolizes her reaching peace in the afterlife. Maybe she imagined the tree in a moment of hysteria, the whole thing a fever dream after a night of trauma.
However, one interpretation remains: Perhaps she really did turn into a tree. Choosing to be still, strong and content with herself could finally save Daphne from the suffocating gaze of society. Emulating the tall tree, if she is still, she can escape the burden of constantly being viewed. The cost, however, is disconnecting from the only world she’s ever known and living life in complete solitude.
The story managed to pose introspective and thought-provoking questions. The execution and performance could have used more time. Although it was a simple reading and should not be held to the standard of a full-blown play, the delivery of the lines was less polished, and more eye contact with the actress on stage would have fleshed out and humanized Daphne’s obsessive character.
With such a simple setup, the eye starved while the mind feasted. It’s almost as though “The Woman Who Turned into a Tree” would have succeeded more as a podcast than a play in its current form. The writing was transportative and thought provoking, though the delivery needed some finishing touches. This lack of polish, however, did not overtake the experience entirely. The piece itself was a true work of art, commenting poignantly on modern life and our obsession as humans with how others perceive us.
“Dare to be still and everything will turn out well,” the fir tree outside Daphne’s window called to her in a pivotal moment of distress. This show intended to disturb its audience, pointing out the grotesque way in which we measure our happiness through how we look. As such, Langseth’s message is unforgiving and harsh: Make an effort to look inward and be mindful against a watchful world, because a point of no return exists.