Los Angeles

Rachel Rosenthal

UCLA Center for the Performing Arts

Living in fin-de-millénium California, I, like Rachel Rosenthal, have felt threatened by the seemingly random, vicious violence of contemporary life and have found myself obsessing about chaos, death, and human evil. A substantial orator and actress who moves like a dancer or a queen, Rosenthal—who plays the last Russian Czarina, Alexandra—intones throughout the chiliastic spectacle Zone, 1994, about the evils of human voracity and cruelty, epitomized by the Romanov family (“assholes in brocade” as Rosenthal puts it in her typical blunt fashion). At the same time, her nihilism is tempered by an anxious nostalgia. The Romanov family, all clad in diaphanous white, is attacked by the multicolored “Throngs” (a roiling crowd of anonymous people of color dressed in deep blues, blacks, grays, and purples); the Romanovs are finally murdered because they represent, as Rosenthal writes in the program notes, a “metaphor for patriarchal Western civilization and its demise.”

Rosenthal’s vision is driven by an ingenuous idealism; she repeatedly recalls the ’60s or early ’70s as a golden, less barbaric time. (Was it really?) Contaminating her own bracing cynicism with an artless and sometimes almost cloying expression of hope, Rosenthal implies that the chaotic rise of the colored masses will ultimately restore a peaceful, and ecologically sound “order” to the world. But this begs the question of whose order it will be. Doesn’t order imply regulating and hierarchizing boundaries? Is there order beyond patriarchy?

Rosenthal’s compelling oratory, self-presentation, brilliant staging, and choreography comprise a disappointingly uncritical view of history in which the murder of the Romanovs (and Rasputin, who is thrown in peripherally as a Hitler-esque seducer of the masses) signifies the rise of materialism and the loss of spiritual values in modern life. By staging this moment as an origin of negativity, Rosenthal implies that what came before it was free of such venality and cruelty; she also conflates environmental disaster with colonialism, the Cold War, patriarchy, and a generalized notion of human depravity. This conflation reduces each specific instance of oppression and destruction to a vague category of “human evil,” defusing the potential for resistance.

Rosenthal’s choice of the family of Nicholas II to epitomize Western patriarchy fails in a way that I found powerful. While she seems to view history as a downward spiral of increasing turpitude, with Western patriarchy blamed (perhaps rightly) for every crisis from the destruction of the environment to the murder of the human spirit, her Romanovs are a many-sided, sometimes likable bunch. They are both pathetic and noble in their suffering, hatefully imperious and sympathetic (especially Alexandra, whom we associate with the overall critique, since she is played by Rosenthal), rapacious and generous, bumbling and graceful. They come across as misguided rather than simply bad, complicating Rosenthal’s otherwise unswerving excoriation of “patriarchy” as a monolithic entity. People of color and women aren’t simply free of greed, lust for power, or ecological sin,but participants within a system—admittedly asymmetrical—of social contracts.

I found myself wishing that Rosenthal had deployed her poetic and passionate monologues and fabulous imagery—the “Throngs” writhing in dark heaps around the luminous family; the crowd welded into a knot of humanity by two beams of overhead light, green-covered hands slowly reaching up like buds extending toward the sun; bodies splitting off in twos from the crowd then slamming and rolling against one another—within a narrative more closely attuned to the seductive vicissitudes of power, and less generalized in its attack. Rosenthal’s outrageous and outraged presentation, which pointed to what she calls the “spiritual ozone hole” in contemporary Western life, outlined a system of power that is far more complex than she allows.

Amelia Jones