New York

Rachel Rosenthal, “Traps”

Franklin Furnace

The noted California performance artist Rachel Rosenthal made her first New York appearance here, and her multimedia solo Traps not only proved a compelling performance work in itself, whether of Californian or any other stripe, but outlined a model for how the genre can adapt itself to a more demanding performance context. Rosenthal added some skillful, sophisticated theatrical devices and techniques to performance’s basically antitheatrical foundations (authenticity, directness, a kind of homemade quality) to create more of a “show,” an entertainment in the largest sense of that word. Further, she managed this hybrid without diluting either theater’s artifice or performance’s focus on raw display. Without any conceptual huffing and puffing about the impure marriage of the two (performance has always been a mongrel), Rosenthal managed to underline and enhance both an experimental notion of what theater might be, and the personal display which is the essence of performance.

Some part of this mixture can be traced to Rosenthal’s unusually varied background: dance studies with Merce Cunningham, theater work with Jean-Louis Barrault and Erwin Piscator, her own mixed-media conceptual group in the ’50s (Instant Theater), and her obvious grounding in the whole range of Modernist art-theater, from Bertolt Brecht to Samuel Beckett, and including the Japanese Noh. Another clear influence is California performance, which has always combined the personal with the sociopolitical in overt and often didactic ways, which accepts once-provocative performance methods and ideas as standard rhetoric, and which evinces a strong desire among both artists and audience to direct that rhetoric to communicate explicitly about the issues of the day.

So, like many current performances, Traps mixed personal anecdote and social commentary, media-generated visual imagery and spoken text, sincerity and humor in a drama which spotlighted the individual self but claimed to speak for humanity. But, unlike many, Rosenthal’s considerable background and performance skills created a cogent, stimulating, and sometimes moving performance. Formally, Traps deployed several of the basic performance formats—ritual, naturalism, lecture demonstration, direct address—to express a wide range of modes from anger to broad humor. In a solemn mock-ritual opening (which conjured up California performance clichés), Rosenthal, hooded and masked, scattered beans in a circle, accompanied by slides of the ocean and an audiotape of sea sounds. This doleful, earth-worshiping invocation turned into an eerie rite in which Rosenthal thrust twists of paper representing moths into a candle’s flame, reciting dharmic aphorisms the while. Then the mood abruptly shifted as she threw off her mask and monkish robes, revealing a military camouflage suit, and began to furiously mime combat poses and to shriek in French. An audiotape played battle noises. This serious fit climaxed with yet another sharp change, a shouted, drawn-out punch line in English: “I loathe moths!”

And so Traps moved through material and moods, from a shaggy dog story about a blind dog’s accident told as a third-grade-level show and tell to a philosophical/biological/political commentary illustrated with humorous slides of hard-boiled eggs and wooden animals. At times, Rosenthal’s earnestness threatened to degenerate into apple pie—yes, yes, the earth is in danger and something should be done about it—but her performance skills kept things together, and her personal radiance so informed the material with wit and seriousness that Traps came off both as an emotionally convincing intellectual argument and as a satisfying performance—a rare combination.

John Howell