Phaeton is unusual for a contemporary play for two reasons: it is in verse and it welcomely draws upon Greco-Roman mythology, though altered for the playwright’s own purposes. In the play, Phaeton (James Flanagan) is a rationalist (he disbelieves his mother, Clymene’s tale that his father is the god Apollo) and a Utopian (he thinks a new order can relieve all human suffering). When he finally hears the voice of Apollo (Christopher Marino) and realizes he is the god’s son he tells his father of his desire to steer the sun-god’s chariot for a day which he is convinced, weirdly, as in service to his Utopian vision. Clymene ((Julia Brandeberry) understandably accuses her son of being “rash and arrogant.” She agrees to marry King Thetis (Terence Aselford) in order to secure her son’s position in society where he is regarded as a bastard. The King’ son– aptly named Thrasymachus (Dan Crane,, believably villainous) after the character in Plato’s Republic who argues that might is right– tells Clymene, after imprisoning her, that he will slay his father in order to become king himself and then force her to marry him.
The play’s plot is a strong one, the acting is very commendable, and Taffety Punk’s production–directed by Marcus Kyd– is tense without falling into melodrama. Ms. Brandeberry is a standout, depicting a deep sense of unease even before the play turns tragic. Near the end, the play has a long patch of argumentative didacticism which may look good on paper but does not work so well as theatre. The ending is hopeful and while I would not go so far as to say it is a tacked on feel-good one, it seems baseless. Perhaps Mr. Milligan means to imply that all hope is baseless but this is not clear to me. Despite these, to me, weaknesses, the play has real vigor and seriousness and is worth seeing.
Taffety Punk Theatre Company’s production of Phaeton runs through May 28, 2016 at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop in Washington, DC.