"I had to do this show or I was gonna fall over and die," recalled Rob Sullivan of the emotional impetus for his 1980 "Flower Ladies and Pistol Kids" (which, paired with John Fleck's "I Got the He-Be-She-Be's," reopens tonight at the Wallenboyd).
"It grew out of the experiences I was having then in my life: being down in L.A., separating from my wife--it was pretty rough. Actually, the story does have a happy ending, which you don't see in the play at all. I wanted to go back with some distance and objectivity, see if it was still valid. So doing it now is like an actor approaching a piece and interpreting it. Then I was a little bit more one with the material itself. Now it's just a text."
The minimalist setting (just Sullivan onstage "and maybe five light cues") contrasts in style with Fleck's more involved staging, but the subjects, he said, are similar:
"Both pieces are about a guy who's being driven crazy--by love or lack of love. This is a view of my life, from age 5-29. But although it is my story, it's also being presented as kind of an Everyman tale: 'This is the first time I touched a girl. This is the first time I got drunk.' So it's not just 'Oh, that's Rob's story,' but 'That's happened to me, too.' "
In spite of that communication with the audience, he noted that the end result is not always happy. "I did another one-man show ("The Long White Dress of Love") two years ago, and a lot of time after doing it, I'd feel desolate, tremendously alone. I'd been so totally in touch with these people--and then suddenly I was all alone again, staring at my life."
These days, the performing experiences are rare: Sullivan, 34 (a former Mums member) has been concentrating more on writing.
Currently, that commitment involves working on a screenplay for Shofilms, training new acting teachers at Cal State Northridge, working with a local conservatory program at Cal State L.A., teaching creative writing to prisoners at Chino and writing plays: including "Rainbow Country" (which was part of the Taper's Improvisational Theatre Project last June) and the upcoming "Just the Way It Was," which he describes as "an antic 'Rashomon,' about mistaken identities and misplaced realities."
Originally presented at Halloween, John Fleck's "He-Be-She-Be's" is "scary and spooky, a one-man horror show. It's a mini-opera, because it's done to music."
The actor, 33, boasts a four-octave range, "and I display it, oh, in so many ways. So there's a lot of singing, a lot of sexual schizophrenia." Loneliness and self-hate also figure in this nightmare journey through sex, death (he murders a woman, "but it's really murdering the female side of himself"), surreal images and "hellfire music."
The show (a "painful" birth) "doesn't fit into the normal mode of man/woman, homosexual/heterosexual. It's everybody . But I'm finding a lot of the stuff I'm doing lately (in cabarets) has to do with death: either I'm killing myself or someone's killing me. Oyoyoy. I figure that as long as I can do it onstage, it keeps me from doing it in real life. 'Cause let's face it, there's a lot to be unhappy about right now.
"Like the fact that so many friends are dying of AIDS. In one part of my show, there's Jimmy Swaggart (via TV), saying, 'The only good kind of homosexual is a dead one'--and 5,000 people jump to their feet screaming."
It's a virulence Fleck is constantly aware of: "I usually walk down the street with my head down, afraid that somebody might look at me or hurt me. But in the theater, I can let it (the anger and pain) out; it's like 'Performer: cleanse thyself, heal thyself.'
"This is the first theater piece I've done," he added. "I've always done more performance art--club work. But I've gone a step further now: 'PsychoOpera' (the larger in-the-works show of which this is a kernel) has really made me dredge the depths of my soul.
"I hate to say it, but I'm depressed a lot. Like now: My car's in the shop, I have to pay $450 for it. I live alone; I'm sick of living alone. I'm not a happy person--which is contrary to what a lot of people think, because I'm usually so sweet and nice. The truth is I tend to live the most onstage. Now I'd like to start living in my personal life as much as I do up there."