Theater Review: Wooster Group’s “The Town Hall Affair” — Reality as a Funhouse Mirror
The Wooster Group deconstruction of the documentary Town Bloody Hall adds layers of artificiality to what may or may not have been a serious event.
The Town Hall Affair. Directed by Elizabeth LeCompte. Based on the film Town Bloody Hall, directed by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker. Staged by The Wooster Group at the NYC’s Performing Garage through March 4.
By Tim Jackson
My first experience with New York’s Wooster Group was in 1984 during their one-month residence with the old Boston Shakespeare Company in Back Bay. They performed L.S.D. (. . . Just The High Points). It was a post-modern blend of eclectic material: a debate between psychedelic guru Timothy Leary and Watergate’s G. Gordon Liddy, readings from Aldous Huxley, Arthur Koestler, Timothy Leary, Alan Watts, Jack Kerouac, and others interspersed with an interview with Leary’s babysitter Ann Rower.
The company’s notoriously “deliberately garbled acid-trip adaptation” of Arthur Miller’s The Crucible was also staged. Village Voice theater critic Don Shewey’s description always jogs my memory: “The principals sit at microphones on a long, somehow sinister steel-gray table. Ron Vawter plays the witch-hunting Reverend Hale as a splenetic prosecuting attorney who exchanges double-time gobbledygook with court official Danforth. Spalding Gray [plays] Reverend Parris with underwater goggles and Eraserhead haircut.” Parts of the staging felt random and spontaneous. The troupe employed video monitors, dance, period costumes, contemporary dress, choral speaking, interrogation, buzzers, rock music, and microphones, with the chameleon-like actress Kate Valk in blackface as Tituba, the slave in the Crucible who, a maid in the Wooster Group version, whirled around after she was accused of witchcraft, eventually trying to hang herself with a necktie.
This was a surrealistic theatrical exploration of altered states, history, and political correctness that made my head spin. Company director Elizabeth LeCompe claimed: “This production has to do with visions, with seeing things other people can’t see. It has to do with stepping outside of normal ways of producing imagery, it has to do with conjuring.” Miller didn’t get it. He objected to the full use of his material and the production was not permitted to continue in its original four-part form. It went onto New York with a new text (created by Michael Kirby) that echoed Miller’s text, but I had seen the uncompromised version and my mind was blown. I was an instant and forever fan of the Wooster Group.
LeCompte and the Wooster Group have not pulled back from their provocative re-contextualizing of works that utilize technology to enhance and heighten theatrical performance. In HOUSE/LIGHTS, they mashed-up Gertrude Stein’s Doctor Faustus Lights the Lights with the B-movie Olga’s House of Shame; 2005’s Hamlet combined Scott Shepard’s performance in the lead in a re-mix with Richard Burton’s 1964 television production.
The troupe’s latest production, The Town Hall Affair, has all the earmarks of its best work. The source text is the Hegedus & Pennebaker 1979 documentary Town Bloody Hall, which revolves around a raucous panel at New York City’s Town Hall in 1971 that contained writer Norman Mailer and several leading feminists of the time: Jacqueline Ceballos, Germaine Greer, Jill Johnston, and Diana Trilling. The debate set-up: the women were there to react to Mailer’s Harper’s article The Prisoner of Sex (later developed into a book). Mailer’s macho iconoclasm was calculated to generate controversy. He was addressing, with a sledgehammer, what the magazine described as “the most perplexing. Not to say the most threatening problem of all: the private relations between men and women.” He made questionable claims, such as “a firm erection on a delicate fellow was the adventurous junction of ego and courage.” He imagined “a squadron of enraged Amazons, an honor guard of revolutionary (if only we could see them) vaginas” and characterized feminists as a “thin college ladies with hatchets.” The film shows how the lively exchange devolved into a circus. Political correctness, the war of the sexes, free speech, media frenzy, and the blurring of performance and authenticity: this is perfect material for the Wooster Group.
The Town Hall Affair was first presented at their downtown space in Soho, long the home for some of the group’s best work. Kate Valk’s introduction tells us what we need to know about Town Hall confrontation. The audience sits looking down at the action from bleacher-style seats. The documentary is projected on a screen, just behind a long table where actors take their places. All of them wear ear prompters so they can sync their voices with the film, which plays — mostly in silence –throughout the performance. The actors create heightened versions of what we see on the screen. Mailer’s huge ego and sly humor calls for double-teaming. Two actors, Wooster regulars Scott Shepard and Ari Fliakos, play the role. Each catches Mailer’s speech patterns — his halting bluster –perfectly. The film becomes a layer in the performance; the live reenactment is performed by the actors who coordinate their speeches, with all the appropriately accompanying inflections, rhythms, and gestures, to the screen. It is a dizzying concoction of recorded and live experience, the disorientation was amplified through the use of microphones and off-stage antics.
Shepard’s Mailer introduces the first speaker: Valk cast as Jill Johnston from the Village Voice, whom Mailer calls a “master of free-associational prose.” The writer was also a leader of a lesbian separatist movement and her speech turns into a tirade of rambling thoughts about how “all women are lesbians.” Valk is one of New York City’s great actresses, and she nimbly catches Johnston’s rapid fire speech and open-mouthed grimaces at her own jokes. The speech ends with her rolling around on stage with two women from the audience in an attempt at creating a kind of street theater. Mailer’s sardonic reaction: “It’s great that you paid twenty bucks to see three dirty overalls on the floor, when you can see lots of cock and cunt up for four dollars just down the street.” Yes, this all really happened.
The Wooster Group deconstruction of the event adds layers of artificiality to what may or may not have been a serious event. Feminism takes many forms, and Mailer’s calculated macho posturing provoked strong reactions from just about every variation. There is no doubt that the Town Hall confab was a performance as much as it was an articulation of views, and this theatricality is gleefully exaggerated by Valk and company.
Next the Shepard/ Fliakos Mailer introduces “a young and formidable lady writer from England”: Germaine Greer, who is played by Maura Tierney. Before arguing for the need for a strong feminist movement, she refers to Mailer’s influence: “To me the significance of this moment is that I am having to confront one of the most powerful figures in my own imagination; the being I think most privileged in male elitist society, namely the masculine artist, the pinnacle of the masculine elite.” Mailer smiles. She then goes onto to argue for bringing more of the feminine into art. Mailer responds: “Your sentiments are exquisite, but the means you offered, and in fact the means that women’s liberation offers, to go from here to that point where we will be artists all, belongs to a species of instrumentality I call ‘Diaper Marxism.'” Finally, Mailer introduces “One of leading, if not our leading lady critic (that term will be objected to) for many, many, many years – Miss Diana Trilling. More articulate chaos follows.
I rushed to see this show during a brief workshop run last fall. Since then the company took it to Europe and now the production is back in New York before beginning a West Coast tour. (Will someone have the moxie to bring it to Boston?) The Wooster Group and its actors pull off an admirable Brechtian trick: they somehow manage to be deeply invested in the performance while at the same maintaining a quirky comic distance from the material. In the pre-Trump age, the show exuded a kind of funky nostalgia. Today, with its colliding layers of real and ‘alternative’ facts, The Town Hall Affair comes off as a kind of cathartic funhouse mirror, an entertaining meditation on the flexibility of reality.
Tim Jackson was an assistant professor of Digital Film and Video for 20 years. His music career in Boston began in the 1970s and includes some 20 groups, recordings, national and international tours, and contributions to film soundtracks. He studied theater and English as an undergraduate, and has also has worked helter skelter as an actor and member of SAG and AFTRA since the 1980s. He has directed three feature documentaries: Chaos and Order: Making American Theater about the American Repertory Theater; Radical Jesters, which profiles the practices of 11 interventionist artists and agit-prop performance groups; When Things Go Wrong: The Robin Lane Story, and the short film The American Gurner. He is a member of the Boston Society of Film Critics. You can read more of his work on his blog.