As told in Ovid's Metamorphoses, the story of Daphne can seem a little puzzling to the modern reader. In broad outline, it goes like this: Daphne, a nymph, spurns the advance of the god Apollo. (Maybe I'm irredeemably shallow, but I'm curious what part of "Greek god" she doesn't understand.) As she runs from her would-be lover, she begs for help from her father, the river god Peneus. And this is where it gets weird. Rather than simply rescuing his daughter like a normal deity, Dad responds with one of the more peculiar interventions in the history of father-daughter dysfunction.
Namely, he transforms Daphne into a laurel tree.
Apollo, crushed, decides that the laurel will henceforth signify heroism and victory — his attempt, I guess, to compensate Daphne for her sudden failure to retain a human form. According to Ovid, Daphne meekly agrees to Apollo's idea by bending her boughs toward him, which he interprets as "her graceful nod." Because really, nothing screams happiness like silent acquiescence, right? Never mind that her father just turned her into a fucking plant.
In Care of Trees, making its world premiere at Shotgun in Berkeley, E. Hunter Spreen pulls off a total reimagining of the Daphne myth. No god of any kind exists in the play's universe, and Spreen makes no attempt to redeem anyone's bad behavior. As in Ovid, the overarching theme here is transformation, underscored by the melancholy awareness that change always represents a kind of loss. When the lights come up at show's end, we're left with nothing more heartwarming than a troubling postmodern fable about love, change, and one very strange affliction.
The play begins with the familiar rhythms of a love story. Travis (Patrick Russell) meets Georgia (Liz Sklar) at a party, and after a few minor complications, they find themselves gamely pursuing a romance. They marry, assuring each other that they'll never fall prey to the disappointments and compromises that poison other relationships.
But a love story this is not. The marriage quickly sours, and that's when Georgia starts developing odd symptoms that suggest some kind of nebulous chronic disease. By the time the audience returns from intermission, the quirky romance has veered sharply into gothic territory, and a very modern relationship suddenly finds itself contending with the stuff of myth.
Whether you embrace the second act will depend on your tolerance for heavy literalism. You may even find the physical manifestations of Georgia's illness teetering on the brink of camp. But director Susannah Martin manages to keep things more or less believable, and she delivers a conclusion that's a total stunner. All of the exceptional technical elements that distinguish any Shotgun show — particularly Jake Rodriguez's moody sound design, which takes the noises of the forest and renders them both menacing and mournful — culminate in the play's final moments to deliver a "large, improbable, and cataclysmic" realization of the couple's strange fate. (Let's just say that Daphne didn't know the half of it.)
The production is less successful in the acting department. Sklar's performance improves over the course of the show; she manages to gain credibility as she gains intensity, and she helps make dramatic sense of the most outlandish moments. Russell, however, comes off as bland. Perhaps that's because his character is more an absence than a presence — he's defined by what he loses.
In a more conventional story, characters can achieve something like redemption by serving as examples for others. Hans Christian Andersen's mermaid may dissolve into sea-foam at the end of her tale, but at least we've all learned to avoid consigning our voices to the neighborhood Sea Witch. Such lesson-learning is one of the benefits of inhabiting a fabulist realm, where every action carries a clear and lasting consequence. But that isn't the case with Daphne, and it isn't the case with Georgia. They've done nothing to deserve their fates; in their stories, the line connecting action to consequence simply doesn't exist. They deserve a storyteller more willing than Ovid to explore both the illogic and the permanence of their transformations.
Spreen is that kind of storyteller. In Care of Trees, he has created a tale that feels true to the experience of adulthood — which is to say that it's arbitrary and unjust, full of questions you never thought you'd ask, and none too generous with obvious answers. Somewhere out there, a laurel tree is nodding its approval. And this time she means it.