The Town Hall Affair
Reviewed by Vanessa Cate
The Wooster Group
Through April 1
“Until all women are lesbians, there will be no political revolution.” So says radical feminist Jill Johnston in the 1979 film Town Bloody Hall by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker. The film documents one strange event that occurred in 1971, in which Norman Mailer moderated a debate on feminism between himself, Johnston, Germaine Greer and Diana Trilling. Each individual here is extremely intelligent and has their own strong views on what feminism is or is not.
One colleague of mine suggested that the documentary, from the blossoming of what we can call the modern feminist movement, might well seem “quaintly primitive”. In fact, the film — which is played in large portions behind the action on stage — strikes a chord. Some snippets of speeches or conversations seem all too familiar, while other notions presented here are quite refreshing. In such muddled times, it reminds us that looking back at where we’ve been is a good way to understand where we are, and to better move forward.
An ensemble of divine performers act out the proceedings of the town hall discussion, bringing to life the voice of these real figures without adding undue characterization. This in and of itself is refreshing and masterful and — in conjunction with some interesting directorial choices from Elizabeth LeCompte — brilliant.
Norman Mailer is embodied by not one but two actors (Ari Fliakos and Scott Shepherd), who project the handsome condescending nature you might expect of someone who invites intellectual women to a public setting in order to “mansplain” to them what feminism really is or is not.
Maura Tierney is positively electric as the seductive and intimidating Germaine Greer. Kate Valk’s Jill Johnston is airy and amused. And Greg Merhten as Diana Trilling allows the internal dialogue to extend to even more modern views of feminism as they relate across the gender spectrum. Even the show’s assistant director (Enver Chakartash) and stage manager (Erin Mullen) join in, the latter enjoying a very long and tender make-out session with one of the characters (simulating a remarkable interlude after Johnston’s speech is cut short by the impatient Mailer).
The Wooster Group and its co-founder Elizabeth LeCompte are notorious for their unapologetic approach and precision in the deconstruction of text and concept. The fusion of different technological elements, theatrical devices, and scenes from the 1970 film Maidstone (which Norman Mailer directed and acted in), creates a surreal mosaic — a perfectly fractured lens through which to view something as complex as the masculine/feminine.
This is an intellectually stimulating evening, performed by as fine a group of actors as you could hope for, with a renowned director from one of the top avant-garde theatre companies in the world. You should see it while you can.
REDCAT, 631 West 2nd Street, Los Angeles 90012; Performances Tues.-Sat. 8:30p.m.; https://www.redcat.org/event/wooster-group-town-hall-affair; Running time: approximately one hour with no intermission.