Phalaris’s Bull

I am a fan of solo performances, having experienced the wonder that was Spaulding Gray and later regularly attended the fabulous Marsh Theater in San Francisco.  The Marsh introduced me to the memorable works of Don Reed, Dan Hoyle and Josh Kornbluth among others.  All of them took me on adventures far from my own personal history.  I also have close friends who studied with The Marsh’s gifted workshop leaders, Charlie Varon and David Ford.  So I admit my taste in this arena has very much been formed by their focus on storytelling techniques to define character, time and place.

Yesterday I saw my first one-man show in New York after 30 years away. Phalaris’s Bull: Solving the Riddle of the Great Big World is written and performed by Steven Friedman.  Phalaris’s Bull was an execution device described in stories of Ancient Greece and it is also one of dozens of obscure references used by Mr. Friedman as he knits together his life story with philosophy, medicine, and poetry.   With that as background, I was expecting the piece to be dense and perhaps a little above my intellectual capacity.  But I was sorry to also find it as overly accessorized as Mr. T the day after a David Webb half-priced sale.  Swells of music, flashing lights, and dense projections cloud the story until Mr. Friedman’s words are literally turned into objects.  This is quite counter to the approach I’ve seen so successfully employed and I do not think it served the material or the performer well.

Director David Schweizer and his design team (Caleb Wertenbaker, Jimmy Lawlor, Ryan Rumery and Driscoll Otto) are certainly a cohesive artistic collective.  But what they’ve created is a flashy piece of multimedia decoration around Mr. Friedman’s tale rather than a production that enhances the work itself. We are told it’s “staged to reflect Friedman’s prismatic and eclectic vision of the world”.  Instead, it comes across as if Mr. Friedman either didn’t believe in the power of his story or didn’t have faith in the willingness of his audience to follow him on the journey.  His doubt became my doubt, and with each showy step I became less involved and more irritated.  It’s a shame because once you strip off the goo, the narrative has some profoundly sweet moments and the unique viewpoint only a gifted student and unconventional artist could tell.  While Mr. Friedman may not be the most natural and relaxed of actors, what he needed was cultivation of his on-stage persona not razzmatazz.

Phalaris’s Bull: Solving the Riddle of the Great Big World is playing at the wonderful Beckett Theater — part of Theatre Row — through January 16.  Visit http://solvingtheriddleplay.com/ for tickets and information.

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