The Wooster Group’s Brilliant ‘The Town Hall Affair’ Uses History to Critique the Present
For the first few minutes after the as-yet unidentified character of Jill Johnston takes the stage and begins a slyly rambling introduction of the evening ahead, the audience struggles to grab and hold the reins of her thought and the narrative she’s weaving. For those unfamiliar with the late feminist lesbian writer’s demeanor and carriage, the thought might briefly flicker that actress Kate Valk, as Johnston, is unprepared, under rehearsed – a thought you quickly dismiss because rigor (artistic and intellectual) is the calling card and very foundation of the Wooster Group theater collective. Later in the program, as clips of the real life Johnston play on monitors and Valk syncs up her performance with the real-life figure, you realize there are flashes of brilliance in her performance. The whole evening is both inspired and exhilarating.
A heady mash-up of film clips, video, slides, computer effects, and songs, “The Town Hall Affair” uses the 1979 documentary Town Bloody Hall, co-directed by D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus as its primary source material, along with scenes from Norman Mailer’s 1970 film Maidstone. The documentary was filmed April 30, 1971, capturing the electric panel on feminism, “A Dialogue on Women’s Liberation,” which had been inspired by the many groundbreaking texts on feminism being published at the time (including Johnston’s biography “Lesbian Nation,” Germaine Greer’s “The Female Eunuch,” and Kate Millet’s “Sexual Politics”).
Shirley Broughton, of the Theater of Ideas, had the gimmicky inspiration to have Norman Mailer, icon of brusque machismo and misogyny, moderate. Millett smartly turned down the offer to appear, and Johnston – as she outlines in her opening monologue – had thought to disrupt the evening and bend it to her own ends, but the proceedings snowballed out of control and almost flattened her instead.
As the panel unfolds and we, the 21st century audience, watch the droll and regal Greer (Maura Tierney) go toe-to-toe with Mailer, literary critic Diana Trilling (Greg Mehrten in a baffling but ultimately inspired casting choice) push back against both Mailer (portrayed by both Ari Fliakos and Scott Shepherd) and limited notions of feminism. Johnston’s witty poetics and polemics pull the audience toward her, though, especially when she is on the receiving end of Mailer’s most pointed barbs. It’s a scintillating mashup of technology and performance, of dense and abstracted ideas being whittled with humor and bite into gleaming political commentary that is as relevant today as it was over forty-five years ago – perhaps even more so. Though the panel is lily-white and issues of race aren’t mentioned, and class is only addressed through the lens of white womanhood, the event still took place at a time whose tumult seemed to be the birth pangs of a better America to come. As we watch the debate now, its issues still painfully relevant, it is from the position of watching hard won civil rights, women’s rights, LGBTQ rights – human rights – be eroded and the clock turned back as a head spinning pace.
For all that it deconstructs and lays bare, “Town Hall” also stokes nostalgia and illustrates the way it can gild memory. The language of the play is lifted directly from the documentary, supplemented by the critical work of the real-life figures. It is heightened and elevated (even in those moments of crudeness and meanness,) the kind of gloriously self-conscious linguistic performances given by people who reveled in living lives of the mind, where cocktail chatter and moderated political debates alike could be dizzying in both substance and wordplay – even if the politics could be absolutely risible. It is astonishing to take measure of the gap between public debate then, and what passes for it now. The degradation of language and public political discourse over the past four decades is not just a concern of prissy gate keepers, but speaks volumes about where we are now and how we got here. And yet, it’s to the credit of the cast that you leave the play inspired and fed, feeling that perhaps the good fight can still be won.
The final performance of “The Town Hall Affair” is tomorrow night at the Redcat Theater in downtown Los Angeles.
All photos by Steven Gunther