Los Angeles

Rachel Rosenthal, Rachel's Brain

Los Angeles Theatre Center

Questions about our abuse of the Earth and its inhabitants, human and otherwise, were at the heart of Rachel Rosenthal’s newest performance piece, Rachel’s Brain, 1987. In this solo work, which she performed at the Los Angeles Festival, Rosenthal explored Arthur Koestler's assertion that “the history of science, philosophy and art is the slow process of the mind learning by experience to actualize the brain’s potentials” (from Janus, 1978). In Rosenthal’s view, all of our mistakes, including our arrival at the brink of destruction, are due to the fact that our species was provided with an organ that it does not know how to use.

Supported by slide projections of various images and texts, such as the quote from Koestler, plus live music (Stephen Nachmanovitch on electric violin), Rosenthal performed alone for 90 minutes, combining opera, comedy, and mime in a series of episodes that approached the subject from every angle. Among her inventions was a Marie Antoinette figure wearing a wig that was coiled like the folds of the brain and adorned with a model ship, who announces herself as “the flower of enlightenment.” A decadent, undernourished character, “groping for oxygen and the relief of decay,” she symbolized the worship of intellect and the rejection of nature. In another episode, Rosenthal explored the evolution of our species from hominid to Homo sapiens by presenting a slide collage of her own life story in counterpoint with her live representation of a prehistoric ancestor of man, who gradually learns to formulate the words “A thought fights its way into consciousness.” Rosenthal became her own “brain surgeon” in a segment on scientific experimentation. Chopping, tearing, eating, and blenderizing a cauliflower, she dissected everything from racial oppression to eating disorders, revealing them as nothing more than the complex functions of a gland.

In the most appealing section of the performance, Rosenthal played both Koko the gorilla and her trainer in a sign-language lesson. While the trainer endeavored to teach Koko by rote to sign “To be or not to be; I think, therefore I am,” Rosenthal-as-Koko endearingly professed to the audience her oneness with Big Mother, i.e., Mother Earth. “Nipples of Big Mother everywhere,” Koko cooed, rolling on her back. “What I love best is the extraordinary feeling I have when I am both me and Her, when She is both Herself and the shoots I eat, the screeching bird, the boy gorilla, the overhanging cliff and the attentive moon.”

The piece ended on a spiritual note, with Rosenthal high in the air on a cherry picker, making a hopeless appeal to an external God, “Deus-ex-Machina,” for deliverance from apocalypse. Rosenthal already made clear that the only means of escape is the internalization of divine consciousness through identification with the physical, the Earth, and the body. As in many of her previous works, Rachel’s Brain elaborated her view of the planet Earth as Gaia, a living being.

Like Rosenthal, other artists have attempted to use multimedia performance to teach lessons and change the world. But Rosenthal succeeds where others fail because she combines a masterful conceptual sense with the techniques needed to give large audiences access to the work. Her wide appeal lies in her impeccable theater and visual-art skills, her rigorous research into New Age thinking, and her passionate commitment to art that matters.

Reviewed by Linda Frye Burnham.