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.
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.