Phaeton, now on stage at Taffety Punk’s Capital Hill Arts Workshop, is a world premiere.
Inspired by the Greek myth, the man-god Phaeton is granted one wish by his Helios father: he demands to ride Apollo’s “sun” chariot across the sky. When Phaeton loses control of his white hot ride, and scorches large swathes of the earth, Zeus intervenes and kills him.
Michael Milligan’s Phaeton has more to do with the women, who are forced to endure the hubris wrought by men, than the men who seek to prove their divinity.
Though beautifully written, Milligan’s Phaeton seems two plays, however: a first act, action-oriented comic drama, rooted in the follies of marriage, and a second act dead serious tragedy with grief-stricken women, the voice of god, a terror-struck messenger delivering the scene of murder, an off-stage fiery meteor (chariot) crash, and a drab, post-apocalyptic world.
The successful blending of those two stylistic realities does not take place. Instead, the audience discovers that what they were laughing at in Act 1 because of its comic emphasis was really no laughing matter after all.
Julia Brandeberry plays the mother of Phaeton, Clymene. A single mom scorned by the world for her bastard child, she agrees to marry the aging King Thetis, played by Terence Aselford; for this marriage will legitimize Phaeton, giving him status and fame.
Brandeberry centers Clymene within the bounds of motherhood; she will marry for her son’s future, not for love.
Supposedly, Aselford’s Thetis is a former warmongering tyrant; now, in old age, he wants happiness and peace. He delivers a truly wonderful comic monologue during which he entreats his younger wife-to-be to hide her frowns at his “decrepit” body because her smiles give him youthful joy.
Audrey Bertaux, Kimberly Gilbert, Dawn Thomas, and Eva Wilhelm play the women, and their opening scene, in which they are giddy with love and its consummation, is fabulous. Wilhelm, Gilbert, and Thomas do a particularly nice job of filling the stage with comic potential.
The one kill-joy is the nurse to Thrasymachus, played by Karin Rosnizeck. She has witnessed the self-centered hubris of men up-close and personal and will wear no rose-colored glasses. As a comic counterpoint to the younger ladies, Rosnizeck does a good job.
Thrasymachus, King Thetis’ son, played by Dan Crane, also wants nothing to do with the marriage. For him, love and peace are the desires of senility not wisdom. Unfortunately, the reality of just how sinister he truly is, is undercut by the production’s comic emphasis.
Then there is the master of aesthetics and order, Phaeton, played by James Flanagan. His Phaeton remains perhaps too earthbound for a chariot ride across the sky, but he captures that contemporary sense of the young idealist and truth-teller.
Rounding out the cast is Joe Brack as the Herald. His murder scene monologue in Act 2 is vivid and gripping and needs no accompaniment.
The production team took the minimalist approach. Marcus Kyd directed the show, keeping the pace both spare and articulate. Scenic Designer Daniel Flint uses the occasional cube to good effect as well as several pedestals and rings, whereas Costume Designer Tessa Lew used a uniform “Greek” look, tunics that went to the knee on both men and women. Belts provided shape and black leotards covered the legs.
Kelly King provided some simple choreography, particularly for those moments when Apollo’s influence was most pronounced.
No doubt, the actors and designers for this production are skilled theatrical practitioners. The scenes are articulate and funny. There were even brief moments of inventiveness.
What’s missing, however, is that sense of wonder that the mythic world demands.
Grand spectacle need not take us there, but the spectacle of the traveling troupe must. Otherwise, we too remained earthbound, yearning for transport, but finding no one or no thing to take us truly beyond.
Running Time: 2 hours with an intermission.
Phaeton plays through May 28, 2016 at Taffety Punk Theatre Company, performing at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop – 545 7th Street SE, in Washington, DC. Tickets may be purchased at the door or online.