Mad Women: Katselas Theatre Company, 7/10/11

16 07 2011

John Fleck is a name out of the theater and performance studies history books for me: one of the (in)famous “NEA Four” whose performance art grants were vetoed for “indecent” content in June 1990. I was 3 years old. When Karen Finley, John Fleck, Holly Hughes, and Tim Miller took their case to court and regained their funding in 1993, I was 6.

Although I had no idea who these artists were until much later, I grew up in the shadow of such governmental assessments as to the purpose and value of the arts — and continual cuts to arts funding throughout the 1990s. By the early 2000s, my public high school had a good fine art program; a solid marching band, but no choir; a dance class once a year; and a drama class once every two years. We never had a school play or musical. The core of my arts education – piano and dance from age 4 – fell solidly into the “extracurricular.” (Thank you, parents.)

Calling the arts “extracurricular” suggests that they are marginal to life, secondary, quite literally “extra” – while John Fleck’s virtuosic new one-man show Mad Women hinges on the arts’ centrality to our performance of identity from a young age. On a sparse set evoking a backstage dressing room and dotted with mirrors, Fleck’s life is reflected and refracted through Judy Garland’s wild and ranting final performance at the Coconaut Grove and through memories of his mother Josephine, who recently passed away after a struggle with Alzheimer’s. Both are fierce female figures. Survivors. The man we know as John Fleck comes into being at the intersection of these mad women in his life.

Opening with a stunning Judy Garland impression, Fleck suggests that celebrities mirror our lives in invaluable ways. Lip-syncing to the recently-discovered Cocoanut Grove recording, Fleck contorts his body to every lip tremor and neurotic gesture of the reimagined performer. Between numbers, Judy stumbles about the stage in an drug-induced rampage. The diva speaks through Fleck, and Fleck speaks through the diva. Fleck is produced in the gap between his body and her own: there is no Fleck without Judy, and conversely, there is no Judy without adoring “men in tight pants” like Fleck.

As a young queer kid, Fleck navigated the impossible expectations of his macho, post-WWII father with the support of “star mother” Judy and his devoted biological mother Josephine. Fleck cross-cuts among these performed identities at frenetic and endlessly entertaining speed: from Judy to Josephine, from “himself” at an awkward 9 years of age to “himself” in the present day. As he recounts tales of sitting in makeup for hours to play the freakish character Gecko on Carnivale, one realizes that Fleck’s identities are ever-multiplying. He inhabits one skin after another, each reflecting a fragmentary truth about his ever-elusive “self.”

“One man show,” then, is a deceptive descriptor. John Fleck contains multitudes – and his performance is far from a singular vision. Director Ric Montejano sets a crisp, almost manic pace for the evening’s proceedings that holds the audience rapt. As a long-term collaborator (having directed Fleck’s first LA performance in 1978), Montejano’s hand in shaping this ecstatic, dynamic new performance piece is palpable.

And just as Judy could not exist without her adoring fans, Fleck could not exist without his audience — whom he quite literally embraces. The intimate Skylight Theatre Skylab could be more accurately called a “white box” than a black box; its bright walls and Coby Chasman-Beck’s lighting encourage the audience not to be too fully absorbed in the onstage drama, but to also observe their fellow audience members. Fleck pulls several friendly audience members on stage to assist the show and carries a mirror from side to side of the small theater, refracting a dizzying and diverse array of audience members back to us.

In Mad Women, John Fleck is a virtuosic storyteller: rapturous, off-the-cuff, charismatic and utterly captivating. But his generosity as a performer is what lingers. The man we know as John Fleck comes into being at the intersection of you and me, audience members sitting in that little theater in Los Feliz, listening and laughing. And we the audience come into being in the embodied presence of our own Judy Garland, John Fleck: a celebrity reflecting and refracting our own lives through many performative mirrors.

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19 07 2011
MAD WOMEN: 100% – SWEET : Bitter Lemons

[…] SWEET In Mad Women, John Fleck is a virtuosic storyteller: rapturous, off-the-cuff, charismatic and utterly captivating. Sarah Taylor Ellis – Compositions on Theatre […]

26 07 2011
Let Me Down Easy: Broad Stage, 7/22/11 « Sarah Taylor Ellis

[…] that evening even more impressed by Smith’s collaborative generosity. She and John Fleck (Mad Women) have renewed my faith that a solo show can be much more than a self-absorbed endeavor. With […]

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