When the avant-garde Wooster Group uses a source, the Elizabeth LeCompte–led ensemble usually tickles it, tortures it, splices it to other styles until it squeals. But in its latest, the swift and vivid The Town Hall Affair, the company shows a scrupulous care towards their main “text,” the 1979 Hegedus-Pennebaker documentary Town Bloody Hall. That account of a raucous 1971 Norman Mailer–led panel on feminism (his misogyny was part of the draw) appears on a monitor as the Woosters selectively reenact it, so we can compare Maura Tierney's Germaine Greer to the original and judge Greg Mehrten on his Diana Trilling. (Tierney's a touch too languid; Mehrten is deliciously droll.)
Mailer's pugnaciousness requires two vessels—Scott Shepherd and Ari Fliakos—who also imitate Mailer and Rip Torn in Maidstone, the 1970 film in which Torn “accidentally” walloped Mailer on the head with a hammer. (This little peek into Mailer's response to actual violence undercuts his “come at me, bro” challenges from the panel dais. We know what happens when someone comes at him—he whines.) The Wooster way is to layer and juxtapose, so the two films seem to be happening at once. Everyone is in simultaneous conflict: as the twin “Mailers” wrestle on the floor, the panelists turn viperish (“The main characteristic of an oppressed people is that they fight among themselves,” sneers Greer), and the footage of the Town Hall crowd shows it on an ever-increasing boil.
The real fight in this gigantomachia, though, is between the electric Mailer and the gentle Village Voice writer Jill Johnston (Kate Valk), who's determined to disrupt the panel proceedings. Johnston's address “Every woman is a lesbian” was beautiful for its eddying poetry and slightly blitzed humor; if you've never read Johnston before, you'll seek her out after seeing her here. Valk narrates events using the account from Johnston's biography Lesbian Nation, playing a version of the writer that's essentially Janice from The Muppet Show: spaced-out and dear. What we can see onscreen is much sadder. Johnston has the kind of radical vulnerability that made her too fragile for this world. “Can I finish my statement?” she asks, her smile doubtful, as Mailer barks at her for running through her time. The play then becomes a kind of wish-fulfillment, as Valk eventually escapes the panel, first drifting across the stage and then into a final, virtual presence on a large screen.
It may be Johnston's influence that converts the evening into something buoyant despite all the macho posturing. Certainly the show is a delight, a surprising leap into sweetness and reverence and nostalgia from a group known for a combative attitude to our cultural archive. Chris Hegedus's film has something of this same air. That 1971 night seems dangerous; the crowd wants blood, and you can tell D.A. Pennebaker was shooting it while running from security. But then you notice that everyone in it—Mailer, the audience, Greer at her most affronted—is always laughing. The Town Hall Affair is all-too-relevant; 45 years have passed, and the conversation about feminism is somehow still ugly. But back then, there seemed to be some relish to be found in the battle. You leave the Wooster's latest deconstruction convinced that you can always fight and laugh at the same time. Somehow after all the show's knock-out blows, you leave feeling lighter on your feet.
Performing Garage (Off Broadway). By the Wooster Group. Directed by Elizabeth LeCompte. With ensemble cast. 1hr 5mins. No intermission. Through March 4. Click here for full venue and ticket information.
Keep up with the latest news and reviews on our Time Out Theater Facebook page