The Wooster Group Reignites Feminist Fireworks
by Barry David Horwitz
New York’s experimental Wooster Group has brought us “The Town Hall Affair,” a docu-drama with the emphasis on the Drama. They have recreated a wild debate from 1971, called, “A Dialogue on Women’s Liberation,” run by novelist Norman Mailer, who is played by two actors. Wooster’s exciting recreation is based the 1979 film, Town Bloody Hall, that’s running, silently, up on a pole. The film documents the actual ’71 fiery forum—with lots of close ups of the major players. The actors vent their spleens at each other, again, setting the feminist debate on fire. Z-Space and piece by piece productions shine a bright light on the Sixties, bathing our minds and hearts in living, breathing her-story.
Mailer set up this debate on “Feminism” at Town Hall in New York City, to consider his burning questions about women’s rights and the patriarchy. He stirred the hornet’s nest with his attack on Women’s Lib in his The Prisoner of Sex. If you missed the 60s, or you enjoy the fruits of that time, you will find humor and revelation in this feisty collage of colliding personalities. Wooster Group takes us on a trip back in time, as five actors wander in, and the forum begins:
First out, a forthright Jill Johnston (lithe Kate Valk) a writer for Rolling Stone, and author of Lesbian Nation, who later makes out with her girl friend at the sound table (Erin Mullen).
Then, Germaine Greer (serene Lucy Taylor), British author of The Female Eunuch., who can put down Mailer’s arguments, beating him at the game.
Followed by Diana Trilling (aloof Greg Mehrten), author of We Must March My Darlings, a cool NYC intellectual force, never ruffled.
Mailer is played by two actors, first, the tall and serious Scott Shepherd; and then, Ari Fliakos, who wittily channels Mailer’s aggression and condescension. Eventually, the two Mailers get down and wrestle each other—he is that split into warring personalities. It’s the second great wave of feminism flexing its muscles, coming back at the Mailer who had written “The Prisoner of Sex,” attacking new feminist ideas.
Often, they break the fourth wall and appeal directly to us, in this immersive, involving, and incandescent show, deconstructing the filmed debate, turning past into the present. Various technicians wander in and out. Laughter at the notorious historic panel breaks out at their antics. The original audience on film, looks hypnotized.
The perfectly timed actors deliver the lines of the movie for us, at us, with us, with a strong tinge of irony all the way through: we get a double vision of the Town Hall debate. We are now witnesses to the most divisive, defensive, destructive debate ever. If you look closely at the actors’ lips and at the screen, you can see that sometimes, they are perfectly tuned to the film’s dialogue.
Why is this aggressive writer, Mailer, running a debate entitled “A Dialogue on Women’s Liberation” in 1971? Well, that’s a question, we cannot answer, except to say that Mailer was disturbed by women’s rights, and wanted a forum to attack leading women thinkers—and he considered himself a shit-disturber, too—not to be outdone by “those women.”
It’s like stepping into a time machine that gives us knowledge and joy in seeing the past through today’s eyes. Anyone attending this remarkable and hard-hitting show leaves with plenty to ponder. These ideas and the personalities are living on in us, moving us with their extraordinary insights, humor, and power.
“The Town Hall Affair” by The Wooster Group, based on Town Bloody Hall, a film by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker (1979), by Z-Space and piece by piece productions, San Francisco, through Sunday, April 16, 2017. Info: zspace.org
Cast: Kate Valk, Ari Fliakos, Scott Shepherd, Lucy Taylor, Greg Mehrten, Erin Mullen, Gareth Hobbs, Enver Chakartash, and Mia Fliakos.