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A CurtainUp Review
The Townhall Affair

What I was trying to say in my usual incoherent fashion in/The Prisoner of Sex/ was that biology is not, or physiology if you will, is not destiny, but it is half of it..— Norman Mailer
Scott Shepherd and Kate Valk (Photo: Paula Court)
The Wooster Group has extended the dramatic landscape with their experimental theater work for over four decades. Ther latest, The Town Hall Affair, now at the Performing Garage is directed by the company's co-founder Elizabeth LeCompte is a densely-layered piece based on Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker's 1979 film Town Bloody Hall that documents the 1971 debate, “A Dialogue on Women's Liberation” in Manhattan.

In addition to excavating this cultural event, The Town Hall Affair also dredges up excerpts from the 1970 film Maidstone, which Norman Mailer directed and performed in when he was running for president.

As always, it's difficult to put your finger on just how LeCompte pulls off her latest hat trick. But her intenton is clear: She is intent on presenting how life meets theater and what happens when the two collide in one space.

LeCompte uses the historical Town Hall Debate as the hinge from which to swing the mythic gender battle between men and women. Though she grounds her piece with this literati event, she evokes its mood on stage with a double dose of artistry. Thus she has the ensemble re-enact key moments of the debate and then dovetails the live performance with footage from Town Bloody Hall, which is projected on video screens suspended from the flies. The firebrands we get to eavesdrop on include Jill Johnston, Germaine Greer, Diana Trilling, and Norman Mailer.

No worries if you need to get up to speed on these pundits and their connection to feminism. In the opening scene, Mailer, who moderates the panel discussion, introduces each female personage and cites her opus and position.

There's the Australian feminist Germaine Greer who penned the best-seller The Female Eunuch. . . Jill Johnston of Lesbian Nation fame and then cultural critic at The Village Voice. . . the journalist Diana Trilling who wrote the essay collection We Must March, My Darlings and then reviewer for The Nation magazine. Mailer also discloses that his book The Prisoner of Sex stepped on the toes of the feminists participating in the debate like Gloria Steinem who declined the invitation to be a speaker in the debate. Meeting all these people prominent in Manhattan during the 70s makes for a cerebral outing full of wild and witty verbal sparring between the panelists that can gets downright chaotic at times. But LeCompte wisely doesn't insist that any personage holds the high moral ground here. She simply points us to the eye of the feminist storm in all its sound and fury.

The presentation is seamlessly orchestrated. Although it draws on fragments from film, literary texts, the media, and real life, everything coalesces into a dramatic whole. Be prepared, however, to do some ping-ponging with your eyes as you keep tabs on both the flesh-and-blood performers and their counterparts on screen. The ensemble synchronize their physical movements and verbal speeches to mirror their screen personae.

Of course, the real muscle of The Town Hall Affair is flexed by the ensemble members — Kate Volk, Ari Fliakos, Scott Shepherd, Maura Tierney, and Greg Mehrten. All do a terrific job at impersonating the feminist heavyweights and Norman Mailer. The rest of the cast members balance out the ego-centric personalities in the drama.

Thhough it seems unfair to single out any one performer, a double shout out should go to Scott Shepherd and Ari Fliakos, for th way they in turn, slip into the skin of Mailer as the panel's moderator or the director-actor of Maidstone (the film's famous brawling episode is realistically re-enacted on stage by Shepherd and Fliakos).

The take-away will be different for each person seeing this show. But no question LeCompte is hammering home that feminism isn't a passé subject as the Trump Era begins.

The Town Hall Affair isn't light entertainment. But if you feel like experiencing something theatrically different, that speaks cogently to our cultural situation today, this is a real eye-opener.

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The Town Hall Affair, based on the film Town Bloody Hall by Chris Hegedus and D.A. Pennebaker
Directed by Elizabeth LeCompte
Cast: Kate Volk (Jill Johnston), Ari Fliakos (Norman Mailer, The Director), Scott Shepherd (Norman Mailer, Rip, The Actor), Maura Tierney (Germaine Greer, Beverly, The Wife), Greg Mehrten (Diana Trilling,A Friend), Gareth Hobbs (Peter Fisher), Enver Chakartash (Usher, Man in Black), Mia Fliakos (A Daughter).
Video and Projections: Robert Wuss
Costumes: Enver Chakartash
Sound: Eric Sluyter and Gareth Hobbs
Lighting: Jennifer Tipton and Ryan Seelig
Technical Directors: Eric Dyer and Joseph Silovsky
Stage Manager: Erin Mullin
The Wooster Group at the Performing Garage, 33 Wooster Street, TriBeCa/SoHo. Tickets: $30 to $45. For more information, visit online www.*woostergroup*.org.
From 2/4/17; opening 2/4/17; closing 3/4/17.
Tuesday through Thursday @ 7:30pm; Saturday @ 4pm & 8pm.
Running time: 65 minutes with no intermission.
Reviewed by Deirdre Donovan based on press performance of 2/11/17.

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