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Phalaris's Bull: Solving the Riddle of the Great Big World

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Steven Friedman
Photo by Gerald Slota


Of the ever-flowing stream of questions that results from seeing Phalaris's Bull: Solving the Riddle of the Great Big World at the Beckett Theatre, that is perhaps the one you'll ask yourself more than any other. Count its many variations, too, if you like: "What did he just say?", "What did I just hear?", "What on Earth did that just mean?", "What in the world is going on?" But if one thing about Phalaris's Bull is clear—and boy, is that ever a huge "if"—it's that you should both question and accept everything and nothing, because, if there are answers to be found, you sure aren't going to get them here.

Whether Steven Friedman intended that to be the message of the intractable and impenetrable mashup of history lesson and industrial-strength sedative he's written and performs is anyone's guess. After all, he's not your typical playwright; he's a bona fide genius (as he'd be the first to tell you), whose program bio touts his forays into art ("ranging from representational pastels to acrylic under acrylic poles"), lyric poetry, and stage drama alongside his work in molecular biology, "smart chemotherapeutics," and, most relevant for our purposes, philosophy.

If Friedman's diverse background sounds fascinating, it undoubtedly is, and the 80-minute evening is as close as you're likely to ever come to receiving an exclusive tour of something that could be considered a great mind. Paradoxically, however, what makes Friedman most worthy of relating his story is also what makes the story itself unrelatable. Just as he can't settle on a pursuit, an outlet, or a target for his passions, so too is his show all over the place, veering constantly and violently between doctorate-level lecture, tortured personal history, and wall-to-wall boast-fest.

The outing (it's not a play) is mostly a firsthand account of Friedman's journey from questioning child through unparalleled Harvard academic (he wears a sweatshirt bearing the university's name, lest you forget his alma mater) to professional researcher and philosopher, with stops along the way to examine the family members and friends (mother, father, wife, girlfriend) he had to love and then ignore in order to get where he is today. And, as that program bio suggests, any place that involves activities such as experimenting with cancer cures and writing a book in 5,000 tea lights on the Santa Monica Pier in 2009 is not, in and of itself, uninteresting. But even after he's explained everything, you don't feel as though you really know his work or him.

The former is at least somewhat understandable. Even if you have a passing familiarity with the philosophers he quotes continuously, who range from Plato, Aquinas, Descartes, and Hume to Kant, Kierkegaard, and Wittgenstein and beyond, chances are you don't know them all, and everything they've ever written, and haven't written 200 books analyzing, critiquing, and correcting them the way Friedman has. And the ease with which he unfurls the vast swaths of knowledge he's accumulated underscores its seriousness to him and his obsession with getting it right.

But this is, after all, a theatre piece, and his hundreds of other potential gifts aside, Friedman does theatre like a science professor. His writing is pat and flat, equal parts profound and puzzling ("As survivors of extreme torture have written—and there haven't been many—the horrific is retroactive, and can undermine the entire previous reality of one's life, transmuting existence into pain, so that one will wish, with all of one's heart and soul, never to have been born"), technically correct if hardly emotionally accessible. Much of his speechifying consists of disconnected aphorisms ostensibly designed to illustrate his points ("The difference between a mistake and a revelation is philosophy"), but instead provide him further walls behind which he can isolate himself.

Nor does Friedman shy away from humble-bragging and grandstanding; he quotes someone he encounters as saying, "It's clear you transcend all of human history, and the entire human race," and, well, he takes credit for laying the foundation for a future virus-based cancer cure. Even if that's true, one suspects there's quite a bit more to the story.

Then there are the verse sections. ("Poetry is prophecy. A moment to a memory. Words to me are ugly. Thumb. Finger. Leg. Foot. And life, mostly ugly too. Poetry's a response.") Oh, the verse sections. I'm just going to let a few speak for themselves:

"Of the patient whose hand I held during angiography. Alert, aware, otherwise alone, and reclining in mortal fear. She insisted I stay near, and whisper comfort in her ear. That she could only abide technology's wild ride if I never left her side."

"We wallpaper the future with prints from the past. And marvel that pain can last and last. As if guesswork were gain, and rigor too plain. As if two things could ever be the same. But that they cannot is what we forgot in journeying far from Eden."

"Blues, greens, aquamarines: Who could have imagined? We see sunlight in shadow: What are our needs? For confidences, we substitute ecstasies. Time's logic, not passage, heals. Within the limits of certainty, time is eternity."

Director David Schweizer has done nothing to tone down the evening's pretensions and elicit Friedman's underlying humanity. If anything, Friedman's listless, directionless movement across, behind, through, and even up Caleb Werenbaker's asymmetrical mindscape set makes it more difficult, not less, to follow him (figuratively and literally). Driscoll Otto's chaotic projections of Friedman's many sayings and, on a not-insignificant number of occasions, close-ups of his face, are something you'd more associate with a cheesy television documentary than a psychological exploration of the foundations of thought.

There's also the slight matter that Friedman is not a skilled performer. Shriveled- and uncomfortable-looking onstage (picture Richard Simmons as a librarian), and bearing a weak, whiny voice, he is far from a commanding presence, and that makes absorbing his ideas even tougher.

With the medium, the message, and the messenger all misguided, Friedman's effort does not easily progress beyond twisted curiosity. In the end, it becomes too much like its namesake, which Friedman explains was "an ancient torture device, a hollow metal shell, in which a victim is slowly roasted alive, but so designed that we hear the screams as music." Friedman sums it up this way: "To create is to enter Phalaris's bull, and our pain becomes beauty." Maybe. But at Phalaris's Bull, it's impossible to know for sure whether you're surrounded by the music or the screams.

Phalaris's Bull: Solving the Riddle of the Great Big World
Through January 16
80 minutes, with no intermission
Beckett Theater at Theatre Row, 410 West 42nd Street
Tickets and current performance schedule: Telecharge

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