Taffety Punk has a bit of an odd premiere on their hands. Phaeton is filled with loveless marriage, questions of faith and faithfulness, young adults trying to find their way in the world, and much more. Which all seems normal enough, especially told through some stellar acting and design. The play also happens to include angry gods, patricide, a burning chariot taking flight, and the possible destruction of the entire earth. Which might not be your typical fare when seeing a play in 2016.
Phaeton, a new play by Michael Milligan, tackles classic Greek myth and puts a centuries-old story on stage for a new DC audience. It’s an interesting endeavor, classical in not just content, but form as well. Written entirely in verse, it takes the Greek myth of Apollo’s illegitimate son and dramatizes it, fitting itself snuggly in the tradition of Sophocles and Aeschylus. This is Greek tragedy by the numbers, a tale so complete with hubris and catharsis and predictability that if you weren’t told that this was its premiere, you’d be well justified in thinking that it was centuries old.
And the odd thing is it works. The classicism of the play is jarring at first, but quickly Milligan proves his deftness with the form, creating poetry that is equal parts beautiful and accessible. The script is both literary and dramatic, somehow at the same time, and its smart enough to know when exactly to pepper in some truly inspired wordplay. If initially off putting, Phaeton’s language takes little time in winning you over, perhaps even enough to make you long for more plays in well-versed verse.
But while the traditional-styled verse might brim with soul and wit, tradition does not always do Phaeton favors. Structurally, the play loses a great deal of steam during its second act, when – naturally – the tragedies start coming to a head.
Phaeton, which is more supernatural than many Greek tragedies, does not lend itself well to its climax, which includes the hurling of a flaming chariot across the sky. Needless to say, there’s no easy way to stage something like that, but having a chorus painfully recount it in real time while grimacing over the audience’s head isn’t the most elegant solution. It reminds that maybe this story wasn’t originally dramatized for a reason, and it makes all too obvious that there are certain classical traditions (tell, don’t show!) that have fallen out of favor for better, not worse.
closes May 21, 2016
Details and tickets
And yet the real rub of it is that when Phaeton tries to contemporize itself, it’s at its worst. The second act is littered with interactions with the god Apollo, whose presence is made known entirely through a recorded voice. Accompanying the voice are expressionistic lighting choices and some evocative music, very modern representations of the presence of transcendence. What’s more, the scenes with Apollo are told through elaborate interpretive dance pieces which serve as physical breaks from the verily verbose norm of the play.
And all of these elements – the lights and sound and dance – do little for the play and end up trivializing the whole affair. There are moments of true scale in Phaeton, of buying into the notion that it belongs in the pantheon of some of the great stories told on stage. But in the scenes brimming with the contemporary, the play is never more obviously crammed in a black box, experimenting without fully grasping.
Which sounds like a more dire indictment than Phaeton deserves, as it really is an impressive theatrical feat with moments of real intrigue. At the very least it brings up questions of tradition and where these classic tales can fit in our modern lives, which is no trivial inquiry. But its own fatal flaw is its anomaly. It is trapped in its own lack of temporality, great but never quite necessary.
Phaeton by Michael Milligan. Directed by Marcus Kyd. Featuring Terence Aselford, Audrey Bertaux, Joe Brack, Julia Brandeberry, Dan Crane, James Flannagan, Kimberly Gilbert, Christopher Marino, Karin Rosnizeck, Dawn Thomas, Eva Wilhelm. Choreography: Kelly King. Scenic Design: Daniel Flint. Costume Design: Tessa Lew. Lighting Design: Chris Curtis. Sound Design & Composer: Josh Taylor. Stage Manager: Megan Ball. Produced by Taffety Punk Theatre Co. Reviewed by Sean Craig.