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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

Among colleagues, Fleck's congeniality and professionalism have made him a much in-demand collaborator, as his credit list shows. He has performed in many of the area's leading theaters, among them the Old Globe, South Coast Repertory and Evidence Room.

He has scaled Shakespearean comedy (Bottom in a 1995 production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at the Grove Theatre Center in Garden Grove), and Greek classics. A couple of years ago, he lent his inspired lunacy to Culture Clash's cartoon-revisionist take on Aristophanes' "Peace" at the Getty Villa.

His large body of solo pieces, with multiple-entendre, calculatedly provocative titles like "A Snowball's Chance in Hell," have taken Fleck around the country. He has been seen on screens big ("Falling Down," "Waterworld"), small ("NYPD Blue," "Seinfeld") and medium (video installations by artist Bill Viola at the Getty, the Tate Museum and the Guggenheim).

But theater remains Fleck's overriding passion, and lately, he says, he has been "starved for it." He oozes gratitude for his Skylight gig, which was developed under the auspices of the Katselas Theatre Company's INKubator new-work development series. He'd love to be doing even more stage work.

"I am practicing my theatrical stuff, but I'm not doing plays," he laments. "But my instrument is ready! Hello, Taper, or any of those people out there, hello! But they never call me in for any auditions. Oh — I didn't say that! I'm sorry, Michael Ritchie!"

Fleck may be destined, or doomed, to be best remembered for the uproar that resulted when the National Endowment for the Arts, under pressure from conservative politicians and pundits who complained that the government was sponsoring obscene art, pulled grants to Fleck and his three fellow performers, who then sued the NEA.

The NEA eventually paid financial compensation to Fleck and the other three performers. Although he concedes that some performance art can be "bad and pretentious," Fleck maintains that the NEA 4 were "morally and spiritually inclined artists digging for the truth — which can get dirty when you're exploding the old entrenched cultural, religious and sexual stereotypes."

Yet Fleck's notoriety proved beneficial. Television offers started rolling in, and, as he jokes in "Mad Women," like Garland he began to specialize in playing freaks and misfits. "After the NEA 4 thing, all of a sudden I got labeled 'gay performance artist.' I'd never been labeled before. Karen Finley was the 'yam-smearing feminist whatever.' And it's funny, I started working a lot after that, in gay roles. But hey, that's fine. I did them with as much dignity as I could."

Today, Fleck maintains a successful dual career, hopscotching from avant-garde performance work and solo shows to indie film roles and an upcoming repeat stint as an FBI agent, of all things, on Showtime's "Weeds." Happily involved in a four-year relationship — "he's a real person, not a performer" — he appears to have found a peace of mind that eluded the mad woman in the mirror at the Skylight.

A few weeks ago, Fleck went to one of his favorite spots in the world, Joshua Tree, alone, to write, think and gawk at the wildflowers. When he dies, Fleck wants his ashes to be scattered there.

"Really, I feel God out there," he says. "I love it, just the silence. You know, I've got a chatty brain."

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