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John Fleck dons a distinctive garland

The onetime 'NEA 4' member, whose one-man show 'Mad Women' is emotionally revealing, sees odd parallels between his life and that of Judy Garland.

May 15, 2011|By Reed Johnson, Los Angeles Times
  • John Fleck is appearing in his new one-man show, "Mad Women," at the Skylight Theatre in Los Feliz through May 29.
John Fleck is appearing in his new one-man show, "Mad Women,"… (Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles…)

John Fleck is rehearsing in a tiny Los Feliz theater, and he's utterly naked.

Not naked like he was in the Reagan era, when he was leaping onto Silver Lake bars, dropping his drawers and belting out "There's No Penis Like Show Penis" to a roomful of rough-trade guys and spiky-haired punkettes.

Or naked in the way that made Fleck and his fellow performance artists Karen Finley, Tim Miller and Holly Hughes (a.k.a. "The NEA 4") into Public Enemy No. 1 in the eyes of Jesse Helms and other wardens of public morality, sparking a 1990s culture-war skirmish involving the National Endowment for the Arts.

He's not even naked in the ho-hum, non-transgressive style that now pervades mainstream pop culture, where Fleck has put in regular appearances in such family-friendly and almost-family-friendly fare as "Star Trek: Enterprise," "Carnivale" and "Weeds."

In Fleck's latest one-man show, "Mad Women," which he conceived, wrote and is performing at the Skylight Theatre, the nakedness is mainly of the emotional variety, and it's putting the actor in touch with two people who helped propel his outlandish, and improbably accomplished, career: his parents. His carpenter father, Fleck says, was a handsome, charismatic "big ol' macho guy" who wanted his son to be successful with money and women. His mother, a homemaker, loved movies and show tunes, and stuck by her son when the old man went on one of his alcohol-abetted rages.

"I had one of the longest-running roles in childhood history, of the perfect son," Fleck says during a rehearsal break. "I was an altar boy. Never did anything wrong. And because I did that, [my dad] hated me even more, because that was not what he wanted. He wanted a bad-boy kind of thing. But then I discovered David Bowie and Lou Reed. And I got out of the house, went to Europe, by myself. I'd never been out of Cleveland. That changed my … life."

If parts of his life and his polymorphously perverse art are the stuff of legal history, Fleck sees an odd parallel with the history, and histrionics, of another performer: Judy Garland. In "Mad Women," Fleck awakens the demons of drug abuse and marital dysfunction that tortured Garland late in life, and transformed the ardent, fresh-faced young heroine of "The Wizard of Oz" and "Meet Me in St. Louis" into a Hollywood martyr-monster.

"Mad Women" jump-cuts between one of Garland's last live concert performances as a haunted, slurry-voiced, tragicomic figure, surrounded by an adoring throng of "men in tight pants" (Fleck's phrase) and Fleck's own anxious theatrical coming-out party as a 9-year-old boy at an Ohio kiddie talent show. Dancing, vamping, spewing motor-mouthed monologues, mugging in mirrors and emitting high-pitched operatic shrieks, Fleck fashions a psychological burlesque show that channels Garland's ghost while rekindling affectionate, traumatic memories of his Alzheimer's-racked mother, Josephine, who died several years ago and appears in spectral video projections.

Fleck's well aware that, for some people, the mere words "Judy Garland" will conjure visions of "another bad drag thing." But he hopes his show about the legendary diva, rampaging onstage and backstage at the Cocoanut Grove, may untangle some of the unhealthy ties that bind a performer to an audience, or a dysfunctional parent to a needy child.

"I almost see her as like this mythological Greek goddess, all-consuming, all life-giving," Fleck says of Garland.

"It's almost like a mythological journey of self-discovery," he continues. "You've just got to … define yourself, not let other people define you."

Ric Montejano, the show's director, says that his longtime friend is "digging in real deep" with "Mad Women."

"This piece is probably one of the most vulnerable pieces that he's ever done," Montejano says. "He's not just a showman. He's got a lot of heart under everything he does."

For a man accused by the Washington establishment of committing acts of cultural terrorism, Fleck in person comes across as strikingly sweet-natured and boyishly eager to please. Tall and trim, thanks to a daily regimen of exercise and yoga, he moves with the manic grace of a silent-screen clown. In relatively calmer moments, his rubbery, handsome features (think Dustin Hoffman crossed with Geoffrey Rush) resolve themselves into a default expression of benign amusement.

The oldest boy among six children (a seventh died in childhood), Fleck was raised in a blue-collar, Roman Catholic Cleveland household. At Cleveland State University he majored in business for two years "until I flunked trigonometry three times." In 1973, trailing a girlfriend, he drove cross-country to California to attend the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, and found his life's purpose in performance.

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