'The Town Hall Affair': Theater Review
Maura Tierney appears in The Wooster Group's new theater piece inspired by the 1979 Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker documentary 'Town Bloody Hall.'
The phrases “Nasty Woman” and “She Persisted” inevitably spring to mind while watching the latest production by the experimental theater company The Wooster Group. As is the group’s wont, this effort riffs on a text, in this case Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker’s 1979 documentary Town Bloody Hall. The film chronicles a 1971 debate about women’s liberation between Norman Mailer, whose provocative essay “The Prisoner of Sex” had recently been published in Harper’s Magazine, and four well-known feminists: Germaine Greer, author of The Female Eunuch; Jill Johnston, a columnist for The Village Voice; Jacqueline Ceballos, head of the New York branch of the National Organization for Women; and famed literary critic Diana Trilling.
The piece, directed by company co-founder Elizabeth LeCompte, recreates key moments from the raucous event, with the performers reciting the dialogue verbatim as the real-life figures are seen in excerpts from the film projected on a large monitor. Also included are recreations of several scenes from Maidstone — the critically maligned 1970 film written and directed by, and also starring, Mailer — including the notorious fight that broke out on camera between him and actor Rip Torn.
Bookended by recited passages from Johnston’s book Lesbian Nation, The Town Hall Affair serves as a reminder of the lingering cultural importance of the 1971 event, the themes of which have sadly not become irrelevant. It also registers as an ingeniously clever theatricalization, with the actors’ delivery in near-perfect synchronization with the film. That the blustery, condescending Mailer is played by not one but two actors (Ari Fliakos and Scott Shepherd, perfectly imitating Mailer’s clipped cadences) deliciously comments on the author’s larger-than-life persona. It’s less amusing, however, to see the fleshy Trilling played by a man (Greg Mehrten), even if the actor’s impersonation is wittily droll.
Other performers include Kate Valk, another company founder, hilarious as the bell-bottom-wearing Johnston whose speech at the debate culminated in a vigorous onstage make-out session with two female audience members; and Maura Tierney, who dons a fur boa and affects an English accent while recreating Greer’s unflappable good humor.
But for all the theatrical ingenuity and excellent acting on display, the piece — which, unlike the marathon real-life event it depicts, runs a fleet 65 minutes — feels like little more than a clever technical exercise. Other than confirming Mailer’s macho bellicosity, the reenactments of scenes from Maidstone (which include an appearance by Fliakos’ young daughter Mia as a little girl frightened by the violence) add flashiness but little context to the proceedings. Ultimately, the main takeaway from The Town Hall Affair is an intense desire to watch, in its entirety, the historical film that provided its inspiration.
Venue: The Performing Garage, New York
Cast: Enver Chakartash, Ari Fliakos, Mia Fliakos, Gareth Hobbs, Greg Mehrten, Erin Mullin, Scott Shepherd, Maura Tierney, Kate Volk
Director: Elizabeth LeCompte
Lighting designers: Jennifer Tipton, Ryan Seelig
Sound designers: Eric Sluyter, Gareth Hobbs
Video and projections: Robert Wuss
Presented by The Wooster Group