Wooster Group Reimagines Crazed 1971 Feminist Debate with Norman Mailer

Norman Mailer 1 (Ari Fliakos) debates Diana Trilling (Greg Mehrten) in the Wooster Group's 'Town Hall Affair' directed by Liz LeCompte. (Photo: Hervé Véronèse)

One of the lovely aspects of Wooster Group productions under Liz LeCompte’s commanding direction is the way the actors just kind of stroll on stage. It's as if we've caught them in the middle of an elaborate rehearsal meant for some future performance. But since we're all here, well, why not? Let's do it.

So as he eases his way into Town Hall Affair, Scott Shepard casually explains the outrage among feminists caused by Norman Mailer’s 1971 article in Harper’s Magazine, “The Prisoner of Sex." The actor explains that "someone came up with the idea of having an event at Town Hall in New York City in which Norman Mailer would confront and debate some members of the feminist movement." He then points to the television monitor that hovers above the stage and informs us that "this event was filmed and made into a documentary by D.A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus."

And there we have it: the real thing filmed, and its recreation, live on stage. It feels like a reversal of sorts, but is in actuality more of a brutal and aggressive haunting of the past, a grab at everything we’ve lost in spite of its preservation on film. Throughout the evening, what is missing will be as important as what is copied and recreated.

Norman Mailer 2 (Scott Shepard) and Village Voice columnist Jill Johnston (Kate Valk) go at in the Wooster Group's 'Town Hall Affair' directed by Liz LeCompte.
Norman Mailer 2 (Scott Shepard) and Village Voice columnist Jill Johnston (Kate Valk) go at it in the Wooster Group's 'Town Hall Affair' directed by Liz LeCompte. (Photo: Paula Court)

To say that the actual affair was unhinged would be to underestimate early 1970s public intellectuals. Captured on film, Norman Mailer, Germaine Greer, Village Voice columnist Jill Johnston, and literary critic Diana Trilling all carry themselves with the assuredness of demi-gods. If their concerns are only half-human, that half is playing for blood sport and high style.

To watch the Wooster Group actors mimic what we see on screen is akin to watching ghosts snap to life. It’s an uncanny talent and at the same time feels sloughed off and provisional, like a slap-dash improvisation. They’re not playing these roles so much as giving them a spin, in the way that jazz musicians chase a tune into pure abstraction. The melody’s still there in its Platonic form, but we experience it as shattered glass.

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Mailer is such a fantastical presence that it takes two actors of uncommon skill to play him. Ari Fliakos and Scott Shepherd are both spot-on perfect though completely unalike, capturing the way Mailer oscillates between punk pugilist and coiled snake. In full drag, Greg Mehrten's Trilling feels as if she's been ripped out of the film and placed before us. Lucy Taylor just takes Greer’s voice and subjects her entire soul to a purr of English hauteur. And Kate Valk, fully costumed and bewigged as Johnston, moves from virtual double to the double as avenging id.

(L to R) Two Norman Mailers (Ari Fliakos and Scott Shepard) are better than one, as Jill Johnston (Kate Valk) finds out in the Wooster Group's 'Town Hall Affair' directed by Liz LeCompte.
(L to R) Two Norman Mailers (Ari Fliakos and Scott Shepard) are better than one, as Jill Johnston (Kate Valk) finds out in the Wooster Group's 'Town Hall Affair' directed by Liz LeCompte. (Photo: Paula Court)

It is in Johnston’s crazy ambitions that Town Hall Affair finds its trippy, kicky soul. In a prelude to the Wooster recreation, Johnston reads a stirring passage from her feminist manifesto, Lesbian Nation (1973) and recounts her fondest wishes for that night. It's a remarkable list that includes launching her career as a boxer (“I had plans for renting a pair of Cassius Clay shorts and one glove”), possibly exposing her breasts (“I like my breasts but I was brought up modestly”), and trying to figure out “how to appear on stage late,” because “who appears late has other important things to do.”

Without this after-the-fact reminiscence kicking off the evening, Johnston might come across as the least articulate of the speakers, a failed and muddled wit. In the actual, filmed event, she proves to be no match for the sharp and profane Mailer (who uses “cunty” as an endearment), the witty Greer, and the high-handed and formidable Trilling. But on stage, with the prelude, Johnston's half-baked clown act has bite and force. We see her attempts at insurrection as vital rather than foolish and juvenile. She's a kind of Cassandra for some as-yet-unheard-of-or-felt revolution.

It is this hazy sense of prophecy that makes us feel that we’re never quite getting at what we see, even when what we're seeing is the documented truth. Our knowledge and awareness of the missing parts is the shifty key to Town Hall Affair. The matter-of-fact title of the stage production (which excises the blood from the title of the documentary, Town Bloody Hall), the excessive number of Mailers on stage, and the eruption of his 1970 film, Maidstone, into the proceedings, all provide the sense that there's always something lurking in the shadows.

'Village Voice' columnist Jill Johnston (Kate Valk) dreams of the past in the future of what the past might hold in the Wooster Group's 'Town Hall Affair' directed by Liz LeCompte.
'Village Voice' columnist Jill Johnston (Kate Valk) dreams of the past in the future of what the past might hold in the Wooster Group's 'Town Hall Affair' directed by Liz LeCompte. (Photo: Zbigniew Bzymek)

Thus, in a production that recreates a wild feminist event, a number of miracles take place: Mailer is rip-torn from himself and symbolically gives birth to his avenging double and possibly his innocent child, the actual filmed event is overcome by its staged recreation as Johnston’s dreams turn into Mailer’s nightmares doubled over, and the revolution that Johnston wished for that night comes true -- maybe -- many years later in a wise and gentle coda.

The Wooster Group has given us a gift -- a joyful, raucous shriek of despair straight out of history's heart. The least we can do is take an hour or so to hear it thump and soar into an uncertain future.

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'Town Hall Affair' runs through Sunday, April 16 at Z Space in San Francisco. For tickets and information click here.

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