Steven Friedman Photos by Gerald Slota
Phalaris’s Bull: Solving the Riddle of the Great
by Julia Polinsky
annoying: which? You’ll have to make that decision for yourself. Steven
Friedman’s Phalaris’s Bull claims to
be “solving the riddle of the great big world.” In the process of trying to
understand what he’s saying, that may, or may not happen. And you may, or may
not, stay awake through the 80 nonstop minutes of his dazzling tour de talk.
I say “understand
what he’s saying,” because this one-man show is basically a philosophy lecture
on steroids, handsomely mounted in a dynamite, deeply semiotically informed set
by Caleb Wertenbaker. With projections by Driscoll Otto and lighting by Jimmy
Lawlor, the show is intriguing and engaging to look at, playing with the
concept of opening and closing doors and windows and looking through them into
the ideas behind.
Schweizer has done what he can with a singular challenge: how to shape the work
of a hyperactive, super-intellectual, hubristic polymath, let him do his thing
on stage, and make it entertaining? Face it: when was the last time you went to
the theater and heard the words “heuristic” and “epistemic,” or had
Kierkegaard, Wittgenstein, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Hume, and the Buddha
thrown at you?
Not everybody’s cup
of tea, that kind of thinky-thinky talk. If you don’t want to stretch your
mind, then Phalaris’s Bull is not for
you. If you do, it can be deeply rewarding, provoking lots of thought.
author of the piece, and a writer, poet, and visual artist, uses the word
“genius” in reference to himself – although always, he credits someone else
with describing him that way. Maybe yes, maybe no. Friedman may have many, many
talents and skills, but acting is not among their number, unless you count
“being himself” as acting. Natural, and
comfortable speaking to a group, but not an actor. It would be interesting to
see someone do the show who had not lived the story – that would be an acting
At the opening, he
comes out on stage, invokes Kierkegaard, and describes the story of Phalaris’s
Bull, an ancient torture device. The Bull was a hollow, bronze statue, in which
the victim was placed, and then roasted alive; it was designed so that the
viewers/audience heard the screams from within as music.
Hard to believe.
Screams as music? Look it up. Lucian, the historian of that time and place,
writes this description:
The tyrant need
only place his victims inside the hollow statue, place auloi (reed instruments from ancient Greece that were associated
with the cult of Dionysus and therefore tended to be used in music that was
orgiastic or emotionally overwrought) in the nostrils of the bull, and place
the bull above a raging fire. As the bronze heated and burned the trapped
victims, their screams would be transformed into “the sweetest possible music
by the auloi, piping dolefully and
lowing piteously” (see Lucian, Lucian,
vol. 1, trans. A.M. Harmon. NY: Macmillan, 1913, pp. 17-19).
Also, the bull was
a gift from Phalaris to the oracle at Delphi, as a sacrifice to Apollo. So,
from the get-go, Friedman practices poetic/dramatic license, leaving out the
inconvenient details – the religious significance, the auloi -- that give the title, and the impetus for the show, their
power; without auloi, it simply makes
no sense that the sound of screams in bronze is music. Without Apollo, the Bull loses a layer of
Lack of detail:
it’s the start of a pattern that occurs throughout the show.
includes information about his life, his school years, his romance, his wife,
his family, his art, his studies, how many teachers or rabbis or mentors have
called him a genius. Those details, he shares. But the nuts and bolts of his
philosophy? Not so much.
He also starts the
evening with the philosophy lecturer’s equivalent of a cheap trick, then goes
on to use the frame of that trick to hang his lecture –oops, show – together.
You may find such tricks enchanting. You may not.
How does the saying
go? If you can’t convince with logic, baffle with bullshit? Friedman states,
over and over, that philosophy solves the riddle of the great big world; that
art, poetry, science, belief, and faith, are not enough to “…address the
extremity of human suffering.” Only philosophy, with what he claims is its
rigor, can Fix Everything.
Oh, yes. Friedman
has the answer, and he tells us how to get back to Eden. To a world in which
there is no suffering. You may want to see his performance, to find out what
that is. If you do, do yourself a favor and buy the script, available as you
exit. Reading, and re-reading it, can be very rewarding.
Phalaris’s Bull: Solving the Riddle of the Great Big World
At the Beckett, on
410 W 42nd St, between 9th-10th
Through January 16