Nothing ventured, nothing gained: That maxim would likely strike a chord with Phaeton, an idealistic young man — the son of Apollo, as it happens — who dreams of bringing justice and scientific enlightenment to his war-plagued neighbors in ancient Greece. The maxim also speaks to the boldness of playwright Michael Milligan, who has written his myth-based drama “Phaeton” in iambic pentameter — hardly a safe-bet format for a new play in our distracted, vernacular-oriented culture.
Now receiving its world premiere from Taffety Punk Theatre Company, “Phaeton” imagines the personal and political crises that might have led the eponymous hero to put his Olympian pedigree to a risky test. While Milligan hasn’t entirely managed to imbue his verse with urgency and up-to-the-moment vigor, the play is nevertheless eventful, language-rich and filled with interesting ideas. Director Marcus Kyd’s production displays its own brand of boldness, with dancelike movement, choreographed by Kelly King (artistic director of Contradiction Dance), used to meaningful effect.
Performed on a nearly minimalist set, “Phaeton” begins with an evocation of wedding preparations: In a lull after multiple wars, a single mother named Clymene (Julia Brandeberry) is marrying King Thetis (Terence Aselford) in hopes that he will protect and further the career of her brilliant son Phaeton (James Flanagan). After the king forbids Phaeton to enter a prestigious chariot race — a competition the young man had hoped to use as leverage in philanthropic schemes — Clymene reveals her son’s true parentage. The news prompts Phaeton to take a gamble of potentially cataclysmic proportions.
Milligan’s script plays with the idea of literal and figurative enlightenment (Apollo is, among other things, the sun god) while contemplating the murky border between vanity and selflessness, prudence and recklessness, instinct and reason. The dramatist often — although not always — gives his iambic pentameter an admirably relaxed, near-colloquial sound. “My son/ Is gifted with divine insights, he sees/The secret architecture of the world . . .” Clymene observes in one subtly ringing phrase.
In the title role, Flanagan succeeds in uniting the verse with plausible distinctive characterization: His Phaeton is a now-awkward, now-expansive young adult who manages to be both altruistic and self-involved. The show’s other performers deliver the iambic pentameter competently while signaling a character trait or two. For instance, Karin Rosnizeck is duly bitter as a dyspeptic former nurse; Eva Wilhelm has moments of interesting flakiness as the nurse who once cared for Phaeton; and Kimberly Gilbert seems amorous and needy as Phila, Phaeton’s love interest. Dan Crane portrays Thrasymachus, the king’s son, as a scheming villain worthy of melodrama, but, then, the role is written in that vein.
The characters would demand more credence were the actors not wearing costumes that evoke a high school toga party. The attire may have been designed with an eye to facilitating the dancing, which adds valuable mystery to scenes that deal with Apollo. Incorporating the entire ensemble, the simple choreography — a multi-dancer lift; a lineup that halves the stage, etc. — deftly suggests Phaeton’s disorientation and awe as he communicates with the divine.
“Phaeton” (which has been championed by no less a classical-theater eminence than Mark Rylance) wraps up with a coda that feels long. A trim would add additional grace to Milligan’s adroit and courageous makeover of a vintage myth in a vintage verse medium.
Phaeton, by Michael Milligan. Directed by Marcus Kyd; composer and sound designer, Josh Taylor; assistant director and lighting designer, Chris Curtis; costumes, Tessa Lew; scene design, Daniel Flint. With Audrey Bertaux, Joe Brack, Christopher Marino and Dawn Thomas. About 2 hours. Tickets: $15. Through May 28 at the Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, 545 Seventh Street SE. Call 800-838-3006 or visit taffetypunk.com.