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BWW Review: PHAETON Takes Flight at Taffety Punk

First, dear reader, a story: this past weekend there was a quirk in my schedule, and a revelatory one. I had two shows to review back to back, the first being the Washington National Opera's brilliant, high-tech, multimedia extravaganza Götterdammerung, the final episode from Richard Wagner's Ring Cycle.

The next night, still a bit dazed from the spectacle, I found myself tucked into a cozy black box theater at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop to watch Taffety Punk's equally brilliant but low-tech, actor-focused Phaeton, by Michael Milligan.

Both, coincidentally, address the grand themes of world destruction and renewal, with mythical heroes at their heart. But while one production had a whopping $10 million budget and tickets that easily cost hundreds of dollars each, the other production's budget was positively Spartan, with tickets at just $15 a pop.

The first was already a classic, the second a World Premiere but soon to become one.

So here's why you should leave the opera to the landed gentry, and run to see Phaeton:

To begin with, director Marcus Kyd has assembled a solid roster of professional actors, many of them familiar from other DC and Baltimore stages, to give Michael Milligan's mythic drama a grand staging. Devoted as this company is to theater with a classical touch, Taffety Punk is also far closer to the true spirit of Shakespeare in that they focus on the language, not the frou-frou.

The Bard's company, contrary to popular belief, spared every possible expense and populated the stage with eclectic hand-me-downs that often had nothing to do with the historical period they purported to represent. And with the generic setting of the Globe Theater's stage, it was the actor's presence, the actor's gift of language that held the audience rapt with attention. Kyd's cast understands this, and gives vivid life to every one of Milligan's lines.

The old legend of Phaeton, however, is just the starting point for Milligan's allegorical tale that speaks to our yearning for justice and peace. In the original Greek myth, a cocky young Phaeton seeks to impress his mates and cons his father Apollo (AKA- Helios, the Sun God) into giving him the reins of his fiery chariot, only to crash into the earth with disastrous results. In Milligan's Phaeton we find his mother Clymene (the passionate, sympathetic Julia Brandeberry) about to marry king Thetis (the solid Terence Aselford). The marriage would, in theory, place Phaeton in line to succeed to Thetis' throne, but we soon learn that Thetis' elder son Thrasymachus (played with wicked relish by Dan Crane.) has other, darker plans for both his father and Clymene alike. It is this prince's evil scheme, and Phaeton's selfless desire to prevent it, that drives much of the story which follows.

The play opens with Clymene's bridesmaids-including Phaeton's lover Phile (the compelling Kimberly Gilbert)--contemplating the ceremony to come, with the joy of the day tempered by the wry invective of Thrasymachus' nurse (a stately, snarky turn by Kari Rosnizeck). The groom-to-be, Thetis, arrives to inform Clymene that her son Phaeton may not take part in the marriage games, and must park his racing chariot for the day. Bad news enough, but worser comes in the form of Thrasymachus who arrives to announce his evil plans, which (in classic Shakespearean fashion) he doesn't hesitate to reveal in full.

Phaeton, outraged, then learns his mother's most long-held secret: that he is not a commoner, but the son of the god Apollo. And once alone, Phaeton calls upon his father (voiced by Christopher Marino), who reveals himself in terms at once mythical and biblical. Milligan's language is at its finest during these father-son sequences, and even as you recognize the models he works from, you can't help but marvel at the originality with which Milligan addresses the great dramas of good, evil, power and powerlessness. And once Phaeton takes the reins of his true father's chariot (as opposed to the dumpy, mortal one with which he was raised) he is determined to thwart Thrasymachus' plot, even if it means he must make the ultimate sacrifice.

As the title character, James Flanagan has the benefit of some of Milligan's finest writing (natch); as some of his monologues take flight comparisons with a particular Danish hero in Shakespeare's canon are unavoidable-and Flanagan's delivery compares favorably with Kyd's own, since Kyd recently played Hamlet himself. But there are also times when Flanagan overplays the anxiety of Phaeton's situation, with nervous mannerisms that distract from his character's position and purpose. His best moments, such as at the conclusion of Act I, show an understanding that the real music lies in the language itself, and needs no embellishment other than an honest delivery.

The story is punctuated by discreet choreography, some of it more compelling, and by haunting musical passages (credit to both Gilbert and composer Josh Taylor). Daniel Flint's simple setting is marked by gymnastic rings upstage, which hold some potential (given the ability to create the illusion of flight) but which, given the emphasis on language, seem oddly out of place at times.

Having worked as a translator, and having adapted Greek poetry to traditional English meter, I can attest to the unique power that it has on a writer. Milligan has discovered the power of writing in iambic pentameter, its ability to crystalize thought and emotion in ways that prose never can. It is a reminder of what is lost when writers abandon meter for mere prose. The medium of pentameter has a long tradition, and there is ample reason to embrace it-and I certainly hope Milligan continues to explore it in future plays.

Production Photo: James Flanagan as Phaeton. Photo by Marcus Kyd.

Phaeton plays May 7-28 at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, 545 7th St SE, Washington, D.C.

For Tickets, call 202-355-9441 or visit:

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From This Author Andrew White