Review: "Saturn's Return" Probes a Community in Desperate Decline

Saturn's Return

Written by Chance Muehleck

Directed by Melanie S. Armer

Presented by Nerve Tank Media

Available on Nerve Tank's website and all major podcast apps

Image from Saturn's Return AD — Nerve Tank Media
At the center of Saturn's Return, by Chance Muehleck, looms a present absence. This atmospheric limited series audio drama, adapted from Muehleck's 2021 stage play, which debuted at Tompkins Corners Cultural Center, is set in the town of Barthos, most of whose residents attribute the good fortune of the community and its people to a figure known as the Yellow King. The mythological Saturn ruled over a golden age of plenty, but The Yellow King, in his appellation and his function, additionally brings to mind both Robert W. Chambers's King in Yellow, a figure in a text that brings madness or death to those who read it, and the sacred kings of James Frazer's The Golden Bough, who ensure the fertility of the land (including by being sacrificed), but is distinct from both. Unfortunately for Barthos, after what the town's records suggest is more than two centuries, the Yellow King is gone.

Some of the rippling consequences of this absence become clear over the three episodes of the series, which total a little over an hour. So too do we gain richer understandings of the central characters and the stories that hold them together. Inar Geld (Mark Lindberg) must confront his father's illness, the failure of the family farm, and developing suspicions about a hired hand. Tilly Harcum (Robin Kurtz) trades a disinclination to settle down and dreams of leaving for marriage to Cornell Reece (Jason Howard), a newcomer whose plans for self-enrichment require staying put in Barthos. And Frida Harcum (Karen Grenke), who professes not to believe in the Yellow King, may be one of the few to have seen him, in her youth, an experience about which she makes the astute observation that the question of why you would risk it all to see the one thing that you're not allowed to see answers itself. For the most part, we hear from these speakers individually, and interconnections among their narratives emerge over time. The drama's themes are further interwoven and interrogated via a pair of songs, one early and one late, that contrast both in their viewpoints and in their collective versus individual voicing (the latter song, it should be mentioned, would still be a great track completely divorced from the context of the audio play).
 
Saturn's Return exudes a bit of a folk horror vibe and has its share of disquieting moments, but it also retains some measure of ambiguity to good effect. It engages with questions of blame and belief, with the desire of people to be seen and the pretense of others in recognizing them, and how these play into how people keep going, even though, in the Beckettian formulation voiced by Inar, "All days are one day." Loss, in its various guises, functions as an undercurrent throughout, along with love, requited, unrequited, or even exploited. With such explorations realized through strong performances by the cast and evocative atmosphere from composer/sound designer Chad Raines, including the harmonica-led strain that introduces each episode, Saturn's Return is a production that would reward repeat listens.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards  

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