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A CurtainUp Review
Phalaris's Bull: Solving the Riddle of the Great Big World
By Charles Wright
Philosophy sees the world as a landscape from far above and descends on problems.— Steven Friedman
phalaris bull
Steven Friedman(Gerald Slota) Photo Credit
Phalaris's Bull: Solving the Riddle of the Great Big World might be at home on a bare platform in a cozy cafe near Harvard Square or in Berkeley or West Philadelphia. Tricked out in Caleb Wertenbaker's intricate, high-tech scenic design, this solo show, which features the earnest acting of author Steven Friedman, is as alien to the universe of professional theater as Chewbacca would be in Scranton.

That stage set, with its array of windows, nooks, compartments, and sliding panels, is far and away the most memorable thing about Phalaris's Bull. Wertenbaker's design, Jimmy Lawlor's lighting, Driscoll Otto's projections and Ryan Rumery's sound plot work together in a fashion that can only be described as frenetic. From the moment the play begins, the design team is on overdrive, doing its best to distract attention from all that's dull and vainglorious about the script.

Have you heard of Friedman? This is not the magazine journalist Steve Friedman who shamelessly recounted his metamorphosis from Midwesterner to hardboiled Manhattanite in the popular memoir Lost on Treasure Island. This Mr. Friedman shamelessly asserts in his playbill biography that he was "[g]enerally considered by his teachers . . . the most gifted student they had ever taught . .."

Friedman's father served in World War Two; his mother was a war bride from England. He was born in New York City, where his family had a garment manufacturing business. While Friedman was still very young, the family moved to Los Angeles and he lived there until he went to Harvard. (We wont forget the Harvard connection because he wears a Harvard sweatshirt throughout the performance.)

Friedman did graduate work in molecular biology and attended medical school for a couple of years. His writings ("over 200 works, according to the bio) include philosophy, verse, a previous play and what he calls a beach book and a "skybook." The script of Phalaris's Bull doesn’t say how, without a regular job, he has had the wherewithal to do all these creative things (or perhaps he has held regular jobs and neglects to mention that in the play).

Phalaris' Bull combines aphoristic justifications for philosophy with autobiography. "Outside of faith, belief, opinion, theory, assumption — the provisional — there are only two solutions to the world," asserts Friedman. "One is the philosophical, the other the technological. But endless life doesn't solve the riddle of the world. It just prolongs it. And so, in the end, philosophy is the only solution."

The play's title comes from a legend recounted by Kierkegaard in Either/Or. Phalaris was a tyrant who imprisoned people in a brazen bull heated mercilessly by a steady fire. But the cries of his victims, when they reached Phalaris's ears, were somehow transformed into dulcet tones. "To create," says Friedman, "is to enter Phalaris's bull, and our pain becomes beauty."

Friedman has a lot to say about the pain of his own life — fears, sorrows, betrayals, loss of loved ones. He tells about being abandoned by his wife (he makes a very weak case for himself as spouse material); and about injuries, both physical and psychic, sustained in an earthquake.

He speaks of an idea for a potential cancer treatment ("a smart chemotherapeutic") that he proposed to researchers at UCLA and that was subsequently developed successfully by others at that institution without acknowledging him. "Could it have been developed independently of my ideas?" he asks. "Maybe. But probably not. But the result validated the original analysis." This point, he says, "is not about me . . . but [about] the power of philosophy to produce powerful results." (Well, okay, but the royalties on the patent might have come in handy.)

A number of Friedman's allegations strain credulity. "My earliest memories are nightmares," he says. "Of damp, dark basements in New York. My grandmother, doing laundry, would open the door to the dryer and a dead body would tumble out like a rag doll, over and over, night after night. I was not yet one. And already the world was a disquieting place. Far, far, from home."

Does he really expect us to believe that a child under the age of one year knows what a dead body is? Or that a grown man retains vivid memories of dreams that he had that early in life?

Friedman doesn't solve the riddle of the great big world and, in that regard, he might have heeded Wittgenstein ("Whereof one cannot speak, thereof one must be silent"). The best he can do is assure us that philosophic contemplation has brought him a sense of comfort and Zen-like beatitude, which he describes as akin to being in Eden.

Phalaris's Bull is directed David Schweizer, whose prior credits include the memorable And God Created Great Whales with renowned theater-artist Rinde Eckert. Al Corley, who played Steven Carrington in the 1980s prime-time soap opera Dynasty, is producing the show. His co-producer is Marty Kaplan, whose bio isn't included in the playbill.

Phalaris's Bull: Solving the Riddle of the Great Big World
Director: David Schweizer
Writer & Performer: Steven Friedman
Scenic Design: Caleb Wertenbaker
Lighting Design: Jimmy Lawlor
Sound Design: Ryan Rumery
Projection Design: Driscoll Otto
Production Stage Manager: Jay Janicki
General Manager: Jumpstart Entertainment
Company Manager: Jeffrey Feola Press Representative: Vivacity Media
Running Time: 80 minutes without intermission
Presented by Al Corley & Marty Kaplan
The Beckett Theater, 410 West 42nd Street
From 12/12/15; opened 12/17/15; closing 1/16/16
Reviewed by Charles Wright at a December 18th press performance
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