There is a rather wide-reaching stereotype of pretentious avant-garde theatre, put on mostly by young people in tiny performance spaces, choosing to lecture their paying audience about social issues that most of the audience already sympathizes with a hand as heavy as lead. It is therefore understandable if my description of The Wooster Group’s The Town Hall Affair, playing at Z Space in San Francisco through April 16th, being really and truly avant-garde, completely cools you from the idea of going to see it. And there is no guarantee that you will not hate it beyond words—I heard more than two people say that it was the worst thing they’ve experienced in their life after the show was over—but this reviewer managed to be intrigued and engaged for the entire performance.
Running a cool 65 minutes, The Town Hall Affair is somewhat obtuse and therefore difficult to describe. The central spinning-off point is a 1979 documentary called Town Bloody Hall, which documents a 1971 debate called A Dialogue for Women’s Liberation that featured noted second-wave feminists like Jill Johnston and Germaine Greer debating the place of women in society with anti-feminist novelist/filmmaker/essayist Norman Mailer. A large portion of the documentary is shown during the performance, with the actors replicating the physical positions of the real life figures onscreen while dubbing the voices for them. Occasionally, the real audio will dip in, and you will be amazed by just how accurately the entire cast replicates the speeches of the on-film persons. Towards the end of the centerpiece, some of the cast members start replicating a scene from Norman Mailer’s 1970 film Maidstone, in which Mailer’s character brawls with a character named Rip Torn after Rip hits Norman on the head with a hammer, concurrently with the debate, to bizarrely thrilling effect. The evening is bookended with the actress playing Jill Johnston reading excerpts from Johnston’s memoir in character that recount the titular event.
A strange premise, to be sure, but the execution, full of off-kilter lighting design and bizarre physical spacing in the staging, as well as some truly unsettling sound design, creates a physical space of genuine strangeness that’s difficult to quantify, as though you were watching the performance by aliens trying to replicate a slice of human culture. Your enjoyment of the piece will depend on both how you respond to this quality and how engaged you are by the central documentary. I found Town Bloody Hall to be an utterly fascinating piece of historical documentation, intellectually engaging and a unique time capsule, and the presentation ultimately effective.
The cast’s performances are mostly replicating other people, and as previously mentioned, they do so eerily well without exception. Most notable is Kate Valk, the Wooster Group’s longtime star player (most well-known for her blackface portrayal of the titular character in a production of the Wooster Group’s The Emperor Jones), who seems totally at home in such a performance as this, and who even manages to perfectly capture Johnson’s mannerisms when performing sections of her biography, giving the pre-written text the feeling of spontaneity that is almost impossible to achieve as an actor.
I’m glad that theatre as a whole doesn’t look like The Town Hall Affair. The strange stylings of the avant-garde do not deeply resonate with me as they do others. The form is, however, occasionally something absolutely worth experiencing, and if you’re at all curious about avant-garde theatre, now would be the time to take the plunge. The production, being a New York import, is as good as it can be, and even if you hate it, it’s over and done with in a brisk hour—a relatively painless excursion. Go see it, and then be sure to send me an email letting me know how miserable of an experience it was for you.
The Town Hall Affair plays in San Francisco at Z-Space through April 16th. Tickets and information available here.