THE TOWN HALL AFFAIR Theater Review
The Town Hall Affair is to a large extent a docu-play based on the real (you can’t make this stuff up, folks!) 1971 panel discussion and/or debate at Manhattan’s Town Hall, with various luminaries holding forth on the hot topic (then and now, as the pussy grabbing Trump-istas attempt to de-fund Planned Parenthood, outlaw abortion, etc.) of Women’s Liberation. D. A. Pennebaker and Chris Hegedus actually filmed the roiling, rollicking brouhaha, releasing it eight years later as Town Bloody Hall, which is interwoven into the tapestry of Wooster Group’s free form live interpretation of the actual event with the documentary plus clips from the 1970 indie film Maidstone.
Pennebaker - known for his fly on the wall technique, he remains one of America’s preeminent documentarians, with works like 1967’s Bob Dylan: Don’t Look Back, 1968’s Monterey Pop and 1993’s Clinton campaign doc The War Room - was a cinematographer for the experimental Maidstone, directed by Norman Mailer. The connection between this novelist/journalist and the Town Hall forum is that Mailer moderated that live event. Other participants included feminist authors Germaine Greer (Maura Tierney, who co-stars as the cuckolded wife on Showtime’s The Affair), Diana Trilling (played by male actor Greg Mehrten in “drag”) and the Village Voice’s Jill Johnston (Kate Valk).
As the film - which is from time-to-time projected onto a screen while the live play unfolds, with the doc’s dialogue sometimes heard instead of the stage actors - and action on the boards indicates, a big problem with the forum as it took place (and is reenacted onstage and witnessed onscreen) is that the immoderate Mailer “moderated” the discussion. He did so in a heavy-handed way which I suspect feminists would disdain as typically - even stereotypically - male chauvinist. For example, seeking to control much of the conversation, the male moderator raises a concept or topic, but then refuses to let the female panelists to reply for at least “45 minutes.” He also spews redbaiting, anti-communist lines about feminism seeking to impose itself on men like a sort of “left totalitarianism,” and the like.
In real life Mailer seems to have been a contradiction - a genuinely great novelist and intellectual, but also a boorish buffoon who loved playing the role of a celebrity, enjoying the attention, wealth and presumably sexual favors that came along with that. As such, he was arguably not a very serious choice (although a commercial one) to preside over a debate on the extremely important issue of female emancipation, in and out of the bedroom.
Clips from Maidstone projected onto another screen show Mailer engaged in a verbal and physical fight with an actor I suppose is meant to be Rip Torn (Scott Shepherd, Jason Bourne, Bridge of Spies).
If I remember correctly, that screen tussle got out of control (there was a method to their acting madness!) and it spills over onstage into The Town Hall Affair. Shepherd faces off against a shirtless Ari Fliakos as Mailer - but what complicates (and perhaps confuses matters) is that in other scenes Shepherd also portrays Mailer, and he is the only character played by two actors. And, as said, Mailer is also seen at length on two different screens in two different films.
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I guess in doing that the playwright - whoever he/she/they are, as no one receives that credit per se in the playbill - was implying that Mailer was multi-faceted - dualistic, if not schizophrenic. And as such, perhaps symptomatic of males - particularly those who were regarded as “liberal” - of bourgeois America, circa 1971.
In my opinion the character who comes off the best is Female Eunuch author Greer, who refuses to allow Mailer to castrate or cow her. At one point Mailer rather stupidly refers to Germaine as “British,” but Johnston corrects the record, pointing out that Greer is actually Australian: Mailer couldn’t tell his ass from his antipodes. It was genuinely a joy to see Tierney perform live, especially as I had actually met the Melbourne-born Greer in the 1970s. (While working at JFK Airport delivering duty free items onboard flights before they took off, I spotted Greer in a terminal and said, “The only way women will truly be liberated is through socialism.” Not one to gladly suffer one-ups-MAN-ship or be out-lefted (to coin a term), the renowned feminist shot back: “I’ve been saying that for years!”)
The wife of culture critic Lionel Trilling, Diana Trilling was an author and renowned New York Intellectual, and I have no idea why a man was cast to play her, except, perhaps, as a way to cash in on the current trans-gender wave. Having said that, Greg Mehrten is quite good in the role.
What can one say about London-born Jill Johnston? This OUTspoken lesbian author and Village Voice columnist seems to be high on some substance during the proceedings, at least as glimpsed onscreen and depicted by Valk, who strikes the proper note of whimsy. Well, this was the early ’70s, the Yippies still held influence and Jill comes across as a gay merry prankster, who hogs the microphone (sometimes babbling incoherently, much to Mailer’s consternation, as he is more used to eloquent babbling), and her Town Hall appearance culminates with Jill performing a same sex act onstage. Johnston’s shenanigans actually make Mailer look better in comparison.
National Organization for Women president Jacqueline Ceballos also participated in the 1971 debate but I don’t think she’s actually depicted in the stage version. The three and a half-hour long Town Hall showdown (although the much shorter play is only one act) was produced by Shirley Broughton as part of the “Theater for Ideas” series. I actually think it’s a great idea to have public forums to debate the issues of the day, but selection of venues and participants should be done better than it was carried out 46 years ago, and there must be public involvement in a way that does not empower audience members to derail, dominate, etc., the undertaking.
The Town Hall Affair may have grown out of the “Theater for Ideas” series, but with its use of extensive clips from two films and some offbeat casting, this dramatization transcends the “Theatre of Fact” format, wherein playwrights such as Donald Freed use preexisting transcripts from trials and other actual events, as in Freed’s The White Crow: Eichmann in Jerusalem.
In doing so, Wooster Group may be creating a new live dramatic form - but this is to be expected from that theatrical troupe I so fondly remember from New York days. I’ll never forget watching their rendition of Mother Courage at their Performing Garage on the eponymous Wooster Street, when they raised said garage’s door and literally took Bertolt Brecht’s immortal drama out into, literally, the streets of Greenwich Village. The Town Hall Affair is an adventurous theater experience in this tradition and highly recommended for serious theatergoers and others interested in women’s liberation, lesbianism, Mailer and public intellectuals publicly dueling over the issues of the day.
The Town Hall Affair runs through April 1 at 8:30 p.m., with a 3:00 p.m. show on March 26 at REDCAT, 631 West 2nd Street, Los Angeles, CA 90012. Info: (213)237-2800 or visit www.redcat.org; thewoostergroup.org.
Film historian/reviewer Ed Rampell is co-presenting Sergei Eisenstein’s revolutionary classic Battleship Potemkin on Friday, 7:30 p.m., March 24, 2017 at The L.A. Workers Center, 1251 S. St. Andrews Place, L.A., CA 90019. This is part of the ongoing “Ten Films That Shook the World” series celebrating the centennial of the Russian Revolution, taking place on the fourth Friday of each month through November. For info: email@example.com.