Los Angeles Theater Review: THE TOWN HALL AFFAIR (The Wooster Group at REDCAT)

by Jason Rohrer on March 23, 2017

in Theater-Los Angeles,Tours

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BOYS AND GIRLS TOGETHER

Having complained more than once that postmodern deconstruction often a) picks on literature that can’t fight back and b) discourages dialogue by speaking in and to a closed system, I am ecstatic to find that the new Wooster Group show dissects a text so dense and fraught that cutting it up only makes it more relevant and revelatory. The text is real life, or at least as much as can survive the presence of Norman Mailer.

2017’s The Town Hall Affair, currently uproarious at REDCAT after a February run in New York, uses two extraordinary pieces of documentary footage and several live actors to say everything I ever want to hear about how the masculine-feminine divide failed to fill itself in the early 1970s. The actors downstage mirror and expand on the recorded antics of real-life characters projected behind, above, and below the staged action. It is riveting and insightful and hilarious. I have not been this happy at a theater in a long time.

The larger text broken down here is taken from Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker’s 1979 film Town Bloody Hall, itself a document of a spirited 1971 debate, arranged (and, brazenly, mediated) by Norman Mailer, between himself and four extremely able feminists: Germaine Greer, Diana Trilling, Jacqueline Ceballos, and Jill Johnston. The evening was part of an ongoing exchange on the philosophies of mid-century feminist thought, as characterized by a host of books like Greer’s The Female Eunuch, Kate Millett’s Sexual Politics, and Mailer’s surprisingly sympathetic response, The Prisoner of Sex. It was a heady time, when public discourse was profane, provocative and funny, the personalities as large as the ideas, and the ideas very well drawn.

Mailer was on his best behavior at the Town Hall affair, but his best behavior was hard to take at the time and is even more so 45 years on. Self-congratulatory and obnoxious, still he is right to insist that there has to be a place for men in any discussion of women’s role in society (and for women in any discussion of men’s), and he rather smugly invites all the smartest women he can think of to come and argue with him about it. Those who do not boycott the event, as Millett did, are no Uncle Tom girls. They came to brawl. But it is Mailer’s condescension, onscreen and as mirrored by two live actors, and the reaction by the live and mirrored women who can’t quite believe the balls on this dick, that makes this a wonderful show, as fine an illustration of unconscious privilege and its effects as I can reasonably expect to see on a stage.

At one point Mailer posits that it is inherently easier for a liberal to reconcile himself to right-wing fascism (because it is romantic to imagine ourselves as comrades in resistance) than to left-wing totalitarianism (because it is too awful to consider that oppression could come from our own ranks). That he is a man making this speech to a roomful of women, over whom he has placed himself in charge as a precondition of his attendance, is not lost on him, but he’s reconciled to it in a way the women cannot be.

The second piece of text gloriously exploited by Wooster director Elizabeth LeCompte is a harrowing clip from Maidstone, a 1971 experiment improvised by Mailer and Rip Torn, who at one point stayed up for two days on methamphetamine-infused LSD before surprising his director by attacking him with a hammer. In The Town Hall Affair, this shocking physical contest between alpha males runs upstage of a catty but bloodless exchange between Greer and Trilling – with Trilling played live by a man in drag. This juxtaposition offers probably one one-thousandth of the potential exploration of such loaded moments – how dynamic, how thrilling it is to be alive! But even this much is enough to explode any argument against deconstruction as entertainment.

There remains more than a residuum of insularity, of hoarding and preciousness, in the nature of the deconstructive act, as committed by Wooster and others; for instance, it helps tremendously to know the Maidstone back story before seeing its effects realized in this show. But now you know.

photos by Paula Court (NY production) and Steven Gunther (REDCAT)

The Town Hall Affair
The Wooster Group
reviewed at REDCAT (Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater)
631 West 2nd St (under Disney Hall)
ends on April 1, 2017
for tickets, call 213-972-8001 or visit REDCAT
tour continues–for dates and cities, visit The Wooster Group

{ 4 comments… read them below or add one }

Tony Frankel March 23, 2017 at 11:13 am

I agree that this is an Affair to remember. Watching actors inhabit these roles without any artifice or forced mimicry was also a glorious aspect of this terrific work. (The ensemble inludes Ever Chakartash, Ari Fliakos, Greg Mehrten, Erin Mullin, Scott Shepherd, Maura Tierney, and Kate Valk).

Equally surprising was the running time of 60 minutes. As plays grow shorter in length and characters, they are not getting better–mainly, I think, because they have so little to say. As Mr. Rohrer elucidates, The Town Hall Affair encapsulates a half-century of societal dialogue perfectly. I wouldn’t change a minute of it.

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Robert Leventer March 24, 2017 at 9:22 am

How do we access history? While it may be trivial to say that it is interpretation all the way down, it is still difficult to square this postmodern trope with the reality that real things happen. The Wooster Group creates a play based on the mimesis of a film, conflated with events outside the film – all drawing from a performance at Town Hall. The upshot is that the audience apprehends the politics, style, celebrities and cultural moment of the early 70s in a way that makes a simple narrative seem false. This brilliant work shows, in a profound way, how we apprehend history.

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Jason Rohrer March 25, 2017 at 5:36 pm

Indeed, Robert. It is a miracle whenever someone else’s lens can provide us with a clearer view of our own experience. The specificity and gravity this director, these designers, and these actors bring to one finely delineated point of view on one delicate moment allows me a better perspective via point and counterpoint simultaneously.

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LR March 29, 2017 at 1:12 pm

I would ordinarily be wary of this show knowing only that I should expect use of deconstructed texts. Deconstruction long ago crossed over from academia and the arts to the chef’s kitchen where you have a concise, multisensory illustration of what it really means to deconstruct. This happened to carrot cake: “Shreds of aerated carrot sponge cake sit atop a squiggle of vanilla-scented cream cheese mousse and delicate carrot espuma, while touches of candied carrot zest and toasted coconut soil bring the flavor punch home.” (Peppercorn, Chicago) The Town Hall Affair could have succumbed to that pomposity and absurdity that is for some reason so seductive to thinkers, artists, and bakers, but it sounds like The Wooster Group avoided that hazard and put together a stunning production. Would that I were in L.A.

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