What happened to public debate?

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Going to see a Wooster Group show is always a little disorienting. The New York avant-garde theater company’s shows are always a mix of high concept, critical source material; and, depending on your taste, either a delightful or intrusive amount of technology.

For their latest show at REDCAT, “The Town Hall Affair,” the Wooster Group’s source material is several films from the 1970s. The first is a bizarre time capsule of a documentary that captures a public debate between three shades of feminism: Jill Johnston, Germaine Greer, and Diana Trilling (played onstage by Kate Valk, Maura Tierney, Greg Mehrten) and the ur-male of the time Norman Mailer (played by both Ari Fliakos and Scott Shepherd). The Wooster Group recreates snippets of this public debate using the 1979 documentary, “Town Bloody Hall” by Chris Hegedus and D. A. Pennebaker as a visual foundation.

Sitting in front of video screens showing the documentary, the actors voice the film precisely matching the cadences and inflection of the original speaker. It has the quality of high concept lip-syncing; though that misses both the intent and the impact of the performance. It is closer to watching a piece of history reanimated and reinhabited in front of you. Oddly, the performers both bring the words closer to us and simultaneously provide a critical distance.

You are watching a silent image of Jill Johnston or Norman Mailer in the background then hearing and seeing an actor take the words out of their mouths and perform them in the present with startling attention to detail. Each speaker’s verbal ticks and oddities exist but in a different mouth which makes them almost like specimens in a study or samples that a dj mixes into some new creation. You hear the words more clearly separated from the original context. “Oh, that’s just Norman Mailer” transforms into “Oh! That’s Norman Mailer!”. This is made all the more fascinating because two different actors (Fliakos and Shepherd) give voice to Mailer’s words.

While all of this sounds terribly serious and heady, the result is actually darkly comic and strangely tragic. The absurdity of Norman Mailer moderating a debate on feminism becomes even more surreal. When the Wooster Group melds the Town Hall event with bizarre snippets of “Maidstone,” a 1970 film Mailer directed and starred in – essentially Mailer playing Mailer for Mailer – you’ve completely gone through the looking glass.

Wooster Group shows are high stakes affairs and tend to skew strongly to one extreme or the other. They either work or they don’t; there’s little middle ground. This one works. It’s clever without being too precious and there’s something striking about hearing this debate replayed for us.

It’s hard to escape the question, What’s happened to public discourse? Even accepting and correcting for Mailer’s particular quirks and chauvinism, the idea that these words and these ideas were part of a public debate seems terribly foreign, as if you’ve just stumbled into a Ph.D. seminar on Freud, Marx and wit. There’s an absurdity to that. However, compared to our 140 character world, these words and ideas seem to speak from not only a different time but a different universe.

The biggest shock of the evening comes not from anything said on stage but after you leave the theater and compare it to the circus of our times.

“The Town Hall Affair” plays at REDCAT downtown through April 1st. Tickets and info.