Interview: LA Village View
Review: MUD IN YOUR EYE Village Voice
Review: DIRT Nightlife
Review: DIRT LA Weekly
Review: ME LA Weekly Pick of the Week
Review: A SNOWBALL’S CHANCE IN HELL LA Times
Review: A SNOWBALL’S CHANCE IN HELL LA Weekly
Review: A SNOWBALL’S CHANCE IN HELL Variety
Review: BLESSED ARE ALL THE LITTLE FISHES American Theater
Review: NOTHIN’ BEATS PUSSY LA Times
As Actor only:
Theater Review: THE BERLIN CIRCLE LA Weekly
Theater Review: THE BERLIN CIRCLE Downtown News
Theater Review: THE MYSTERY OF IRMA VEP Los Angeles Times
Theater Review: A MIDSUMMER’S NIGHT DREAM Los Angeles Times
A feature article: LA Village View
March 17, 1996
By: Stuart Timmons
Re-FLECKtions – Performance Artist John Fleck Returns to the Stage as Conservatives Threaten the NEA’s Very Existence
One Sunday morning eight years ago, performance artist John Fleck faced off some Christian fundamentalists on a Silverlake sidewalk. The building is fronted, now the field office of Councilmember Jackie Goldberg, was then a Los Angeles women’s clinic where patients had to cope with blocked entrance, insults by bullhorn, and placards displaying bloody fetuses.
Fleck had been recruited for “clinic defense” along with some friends, including his sometime accompanist Josie Roth, a violinist in the avant-garde quartet Fat and Fucked Up, and Carol Cetrone, the dancer better known as Perpetua.
The right-to-lifers were straight out of Diane Arbus; women with lacquered bouffants, aggressively feminine eye makeup, and tight mouths; their sons sporting crewcuts; and their daughter wearing flouncy dresses and sneers. The only man among them stood six-foot-eight, lumbered stiffly, and threw the pale-eyed glare of Frankenstein’s monster.
Undaunted, Fleck drew up his own lanky frame and waved his round blue NOW sign at oncoming traffic. With trademark irreverence, he lead two bleary-eyed guys who’d been drafted at a nightclub just six hours before in a kick-line and cheer: “We want abortions! We want abortions! Rah! Rah! Rah!
Little did Fleck imagine that the fundamentalists would strike back hard and personal. His 1990 NEA grant, already approved by a panel of artists, was pulled after his work was attacked in the conservative Washington Times. He watched as his name and work were shrunk to a distortion: the man who peed on stage.
Fleck deserves a better legacy, and he seems fast on his way to achieving that goal. With his rare mix of bohemian bravura and refined theatrical talent, he has succeeded at two careers. He is one of the country’s most popular performance artists, with a new show opening at MOCA this week. And his television and film work (most recently a scene opposite Dennis Hopper in the soon-to-be-released Waterworld) keeps him busy enough to have purchased a house in Los Feliz recently. But his brush with the “art police” gave Fleck an intense preview of what artists nationwide are experiencing today.
John Fleck hasn’t been sleeping well for six days now. This insomnia occurs before a show and is his least favorite part of the creative process. Despite his increased confidence and fame, the syndrome has dogged him for years. He pops a white tablet; milkweek thistle.
“My acupuncturist says my liver is hot, which is part of the insomnia,” Fleck says. “So I take one of these and drink this swampy tea he mixes. Hey, you a shot of vodka? I can’t have one, but please.. I’ll just have a beer with my milkweed thistle. Gotta watch that hot liver.”
Fleck settles into a chair in the unfinished solarium of his home. He is surprisingly handsome in person, considering that many of his industry roles call for three-day stubble and hostility. After portraying a hood-pounding drug dealer in a widely viewed public service announcement, Fleck was practically typecast. He’s played aggressive bums in Falling Down and on LA Law as well as a homicidal pedophile on NYPD Blue.
“But suddenly I’m playing nice people,” he says. “I’ve auditioned for three even-tempered professionals, a doctor, a lawyer, and a mechanic. It’s pilot season.”
He is relaxed on this late-winter day, though as he speaks his talk can easily speed up, with jokes topping serious ideas. Even so, he keeps that nervous energy in check, continually monitoring the image he projects. It’s not so much popularity that seems to concern him as accessibility. Like any actor, he wants to balance approachability with mystery.
His industry career seems to be progressing so well that he could abandon performance art, which he admits is something that many people won’t sit through, let alone pay for.
“A lot of people hear the word and think, ‘Echh, garbarge. Anyone can get up and call themselves a performance artist.’” But Fleck is devoted to the form, and defends it. “Performance art is fuckin’ hard work.”
Especially hard the way he does it. Exceedingly physical, he hurls himself into his performances and occasionally against his sets. Though his shows leave the impression of inspired spontaneous outbursts, they are carefully scripted, polished theater.
Part of Fleck’s appeal is the balance he maintains between the classic and the experimental. Director David Schweizer, a frequent collaborator, sets Fleck’s work “in the tradition of the wounded clown.” In delving into the wound, Fleck employs his comic skills to help make bearable the pain of everyday life. Fleck credits opera has his greatest inspiration, and he can indeed fill the room with his rubbery facial expressions and piercing, three-octave voice.
He’s hypermodern, dancing on the cutting edge with his props, lanquage, and sense of humor. Watching Fleck is something like seeing Bert Lahr, Maria Callas, and Star Trek’s Commander Data put through an Osterizer.
His manic style of comedy, balanced with unexpectedly thoughtful substance, has come to command a loyal following. The faithful and the curious are already lining up for his MOCA offering, which is called me.
“I don’t wanna talk about me,” he says with mock belligerence, threatening to drag the conversation into a permutation of Abbott and Costello’s “Who’s On First” routine. Fleck breaks into a rich laugh. “That’s why I called it me, because it always reflects back on you. If you don’t like it, me stinks. If you do like it, me is wonderful. Hah! Back to me. And that’s lowercase; this is the story of a very minor celebrity.”
Minor and mesmerizing. In 68 minutes of solo performance, Fleck digs into the freezer of our private neuroses and chops loose the underfrosted contemporary heart. His isolated character teeters between dissolute arrogance and terrified hysteria until a Noh-style, black-clad video crew provides him with a love object: his broadcast image. Creating that public image reveals, in turn, a familiar interim persona: the bathroom-mirror narcissist who climbs on clouds of Barbisol and Paul Mitchell Sculpting Spray.
“me is about this fictional character who’s trying to fit into the tube, so to speak.” He explains. “He’s only alive when he’s on camera. There’s some cracks during so-called technical difficulties where the real me starts to emerge. But that real me is always sublimated to this character who wants to be somebody. You’re nothing until you’re somebody. It’s about the body as commodity, about me as a product. And don’t forget, me is about you.”
To underscore that message, Fleck sent postcard announcements for me on silver mylar—miniature mirrors.
As his career develops, products, labels, and identity have become obsessions. “Celebrity magnifies a lot of human problems.” He says, “especially in this city. All of us want to be so famous, so rich. But look at any celebrity, from Burt Reynolds to Rosa Lopez. That caliber of fame becomes a public product. Everyone’s looking at you, kind of touching you viscerally. And you can only take so much of that contact.
“There are inherent realities with being a public personality.” Fleck adds. “People think they know you. They’ve seen you on the screen. But you could be dead before people see that image. So that creates, in a way, a fight between life and death. Trying to be alive and be real, and feel real. Being real versus being—tape.”
Prerecorded reality has often been part of Fleck’s work. In his 1988 PsychoOpera, about the schizophrenic breakdown of an average guy, the character’s living-room television set shows Fleck as a local newscaster sequeing from coherent stories into a comforting but unintelligible babble of news-speak. Later, a video monitor showing the image of a grunting, unshaven Fleck hangs over the live actor in drag and hysterics. The scene drew howls from the audience.
It’s been quite a journey for a shy boy from Cleveland. “We moved constantly because my father, a German immigrant traveling salesman, occasionally tried other jobs: Carpenter, swimming-pool builder, stuff like that.”
Fleck eventually went to Cleveland State College. “I was a business major. I flunked trigonometry three times. All I could do at that point was move to Los Angeles.”
Though he’s been too shy to finish his college drama course, Fleck pursued acting and the California lifestyle. “I went to the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, did gestalt workshops and a bunch of other therapies, learned tap dance, modern jazz, vocalization, and took endless acting workshops.”
Between auditions, he discovered the club scene. The first time he tried performance art was at a party in a downtown LA. loft in 1981. “It was a birthday with a punky crowd, friendly but, on the outrageous side. I had no idea what to do, so I got up on this little platform wearing a cardboard cake. I stepped out of the cake, dropped my pants, and sang ‘There’s No Penis Like Show Penis.’”
“Then came all those Theoreticals.” Theoretical parties, held throughout the 1980s, were prototypical punk celebrations orchestrated by DJ Jim Van Tyne, Fleck’s earliest patron. The first few were held at the One Way, a now-defunct Silverlake leather bar where Van Tyne spun tunes. These five-buck Sunday afternoon affairs often lasted into the wee hours of Monday morning. They showcased last-wave punk bands like the Bags and Redd Cross, novelty acts such as John Waters’ discovery Edie Massey—and Fleck. That self-styled “Hollywood underground” crowd’s hangout, the Anti-Club, was so atmospheric that Lily Tomlin chose it to workshop her teen rebel character, Agnes Angst.
“That was a fun period,” Fleck recalls, “Very polymorphous and very perverse. Very much ruled by shock value, the punk aesthetic, you might call it. Kind of tear it up, make a mess, make a whole lot of noise, get attention. At the Lhasa Club, I used to watch performances by Weba Garretson, Phillip Little, Donald Kreiger—all those people. I thought, ‘That’s what I want to do.’”
The reigning (some would say raining) queen of performance art was Johanna Went. “God, she’d do these careful sculptures, these doll figures that would both play with her and attach her, and she’d rip into them. Inside there’d be blood, meat, mustard, mayonnaise…Anyone in the front row got splattered! Johanna would transform on acid trip into another. Dildos and doll heads all over her costumes. The first time I saw her was at the Hong Kong Café, and everyone started banging on the tables. I was banging along with all of them. It was so exciting.”
Went, who explained that her art helped her process of coping with childhood abuse, was known for cathartic, one-time-only performances. “It was Grand Guignol puppetry. She’d work for months on these costumes, do one show, then it would be over. She’d really make these into happenings. I loved that idea of happenings: do a show once, this intense explosion, and never do it again. But then, you spend money, you work hard, and maybe only 30 people will ever have seen it. Maybe it’s me, but I got tired of that.”
Gender, secularity, and the life of the spirit were Fleck’s early themes, but the NEA flap elbowed out most subjects except that of imposed personae. “ I was accused of masturbating on stage, of urinating on the audience. Ah-yai-yai, absolute out-of-left-field lies.”
The leak heard ‘round the world was actually a minor aspect of his 1990 performance, Blessed Are All the Little Fishes. Fleck’s spectacular take on consumerism, ecology, and water, Fishes centered on a single character, as his work usually does.
“An alcoholic. He drinks like a fish; later he dresses like a fish. He begins by puking into the toilet, moaning, ‘God, why did you forsake me?’ “ As Fleck hugged the bowl, the voice of God boomed an answer and promised a miracle. A Bible appeared in Fleck’s hand, and, as he rose to his feet reading about the Old Testament flood in full Jimmy Swaggert voice, he began to pee into the stage toilet. “He reaches into the golden waters, takes out a goldfish (hidden safely away), and plops it into a glass bowl.”
The alky falls for the fish and places it on a pedestal, literally. To provide a big love offering to this little token of love, he picks from a loaf to feed it, carrying through the Christian imagery. First crumbs, then croutons, and soon, spastic with passion, he nearly crowds it out of the bowl with huge chunks of sourdough. One opening night at the Olio Theater in Silverlake, the laughter in the audience got nervous.
“You could hear people in the audience, mostly these punky kids, start to chant, ‘Save the fish! Save the fish!’ I knew what I was doing could arouse people’s emotions, but the situation was fun, not hostile. But one guy all of a sudden jumps onto the stage and comes at me. This was not rehearsed and was definitely hostile.
“’You motherfucker!’ he’s shouting, ‘Leave that fish alone.’ I just froze for a minute. ‘Give me the goddamned fish!’ he says, and takes the bowl off the pedestal, muttering as he leaves the theater.”
Fleck recovered with ad libs. “’Great guy,’ I said. ‘Real humanitarian. But what about the ton of sewage we’re pumping into Santa Monica Bay every week, and the 50,000 fish we’re killing that way. And what about all the dolphins we kill in the name of tuna-fish sandwiches. Gotta have those tuna melts, don’t ya, buddy! Because I carried on pretty well, everyone thought it was rehearsed.”
Later, he did rehearse the incident, and incorporated it into the show. But a stew was brewing. A Los Angeles Times writer baffled Fleck by dubbing him the “Apostle of Violence” and suggesting that he was the Ozzie Osbourne of performance art. Rachel Rosenthal, the godmother of performance art, criticized Fleck in the press for cruelty to animals. Conservatives opposed to the National Endowment for the Arts latched onto Fleck’s peeing, and attacks ran in the Washington Times against him and three other performance artists, Karen Finley, Tim Miller, and Holly Hughes. When their grants were yanked, they became known as the NEA Four.
All hell broke loose. Fleck was hit with hundreds of harassing phone calls. “Some guy kept hitting the redial, playing a song screaming out, ‘We’re fag-bashing skinhead Nazis.’ Real creepy. I got over 500 of those calls in three days. I had to change my number and unlist it.” Congressman Dana Rohrabacher accused Fleck of urinating on a picture of Jesus Christ. Fleck made an ill-advised appearance on Oprah sandwiched between flag burners and the man who spearheaded the banning of 2 Live Crew in Florida. Though he’d been invited to discuss the NEA, Fleck wound up back at the toilet; he was stuck defending thirty seconds out of a 10-year career.
The irony of this fixation was not lost on Fleck, but it frustrated him. Peeing on cue had been a comparatively innocent gimmick in Fishes, with the nightly cheer of delight fading into the larger context. But a ton of ink was spilled about this allegedly unprecedented urination on stage at taxpayers’ expense.
“I kept telling people that it was nothing new. It’s been done in Sam Shepherd plays and other plays, that it was only a minor aspect of this performance. But nothing would get in the way of their headline.”
On the other hand, there was support, too. Filmmaker Michael Moore even sent money for the Four. Karen Finley and the three gay performance artists, as the press called them, were flown around the country and feted. But Fleck brooded.
“The whole labeling thing drove me nuts. I’d go on auditions and producers would tell me not to pee on the floor. And it happened on both sides, really. You were put in this little niches, and that’s what you were. All of a sudden I was expected to be a spokesman for gay performance artists. I balked because my work didn’t have that much to do with gay politics or culture. Tim and Holly are expert gay partisans in their performances; that’s the substance of a lot of their work. My stuff is more ambisexual, pansexual. I call it trisexual—I just try to be sexual, in whatever way I can be.”
Another aspect of this pigeonholing chafed at Fleck. Though he’d had relationships with men, he’d also recently been involved with women. When he told the Washington Post that he was bisexual, he faced attached from his allies. “I got so much fuckin’ flack for saying that! Holly Hughes still makes fun of me. ‘Oh, you’re bisexual, aren’t you John’ like I was trying to cop out 1950s-style.”
Fleck remains concerned about his accessibility. “I always wanted to appeal to everyone. I thought my pieces actually appealed more to women. Call it what you like, maybe that’s the gay point of view, the feminine point of view. I’ve been told that my performances are a lot more feminist than gay. But the NEA thing happened, and all this buzz about ‘gay performance artist’ congealed.” It stuck like Elmer’s.
The NEA Four scenario was too convenient a political farce to be perceived any other way. The congressional point man against artistic diversity was Senator Jesse Helms, and one feature story on Fleck played up that tension with the headline “nightmare on Helms Street.” Whether or not it was completely accurate, “Jesse versus the gay performance artists” made great copy. And the flames were stoked by Holly Hughes and Tim Miller, both masters of activist rhetoric. Miller gleefully released a statement daring Helms to “keep your Porky Pig face out of the NEA and out of my asshole.”
The Four found legal help and eventually won a case against the government, including repayment of their grants. But Fleck’s experience with federal arts defunding makes him pessimistic about the future of such patronage.
“I tell you, I read that Christopher Knight piece in the Los Angeles Times, and he said it bast. Cutting the NEA is a very simple sacrifice to the religious right. I can’t help but reflect on how the NEA represents to the right this sort of golden idol, an abundance of diverse and, in their eyes, perverse ideas. And the politics are strategically careful. They can’t win on abortion, so the functionaries gave them art.” He shakes his head, obviously wearied by the subject and its implications.
“Our legal victory was actually not a long-term political win,” he says. “When it was put to the test, our freedom of expression was protected. The system worked; civil rights apply to government-funded artists. We were right. They done us wrong. So, as long as that institution exits with its foundations, all they can do is tear it down.”
Does he see any hope? “I keep waiting for someone to point out that arts funding is good for the economy. I was talking to one of Reza Abdoh’s peoople about how his plays are done in Europe. Posters get printed. Tourists get lured. You really can stimulate the economy with culture.
“In this country, we circulate all that support around sports and entertainment. They’ve got their place, and some great things happen on TV, but there’s more to life than that dead image on the screen in your living room. There’s live, sweating, spitting people.” He smiles. “You get to see some real folk, live. Folk art.”
He backtracks for a moment. “I’d love to have a nice, steady role on a hit TV show. But I can’t stop doing my art. It’s like therapy for me.
“You can say all you want about how this money is letting inner-city children see the orchestra and go to museums, but it’s also supporting perverts like me.” Of course, he is joking about the label. “There again you get into questions of what has value. Who’s the weirdos? What do you keep? Do you pull Huck Finn from libraries because some people don’t like it? Harry Truman said that one man’s obscenity is another man’s philosophy. It’s true.”
Though Fleck cuts to the quick on stage, his is an essentially straightforward philosophy. When recently invited to lecture at Cal Arts, with a chance at attaining a teaching position as visiting artist, he found that the theory-larded language of the students threw him for a loop.
“Mr. Fleck,’ this one girl asked me, ‘Are you trying to deconstruct the concept of gender and replace it with a dissolving proscenium division of electronic culture as a multi-personality norm?’—or something like that. I had no idea what she was talking about. I looked around the room for a minute. Then I started to do high kicks, holding my hand above my head.
“I don’t know about that,’ I said, ‘but I can kick high.’”
Theater Review: MUD IN YOUR EYE
May 15, 2001
Performed at PS-122, NYC
The streamers, the stars, the stripes, the red, white, and blue drapes—the set for John fleck’s Mud in Your Eye (P.S. 122) just screams Independence Day.. Except that it’s early may and Fleck isn’t declaring his independence from anything. Mud, rather trains its eye on Fleck’s dependencies—alcohol, Hollywood, performance art. Fleck is a needy, needy man, and as he’s also an absurdly dynamic and engaged performer, it’s a pleasure to serve as enabler.
Fleck performs with a smile on his face, a cocktail in his hand, and a sassy set of American flag skivvies beneath his slacks. He relates his reliance on the Hollywood machine, taking bit parts in TV shows and network movies to keep solvent. Hey may hold LA in some contempt, but he’s internalized its rituals and culture. He even structures Mud as a film shoot with an omnipresent three-person camera crew as collective straight man (perhaps the only straight aspect of the show). But if Fleck is whoring himself for Hollywood cash, he’s implicating the audience too. Throughout the show he offers money or drinks to spectators willing to assist in his endeavors. (Your reviewer enjoyed a turn as a Led Zeppelin-accompanied go-go dancer.)
It’s been over a decade since the NEA ‘defunded’ Fleck and three other performance artists on the grounds of indecency, and almost three years since the Supreme Court upheld that decision. Fleck’s material may not itself dazzle—the childhood anecdotes are affecting, but the Hollywood love-hate is familiar, and the political jibes are standard-issue Bushbeating—yet Fleck’s infectious energy and virtuosic performance still mark that defunding as the true indecency. –Alexis Soloski
John Fleck: what a hunk! That’s right. Not that he’’ ever read this, but I say this to make the dear Mr. Fleck—a Stan Laurel of a man—smile, if not laugh out loud. To surprise himk please him, even embarrass him. Make him consider the possibilities. Because that’s the sort of an effect he has on an audience. On me anyway. And “Dirt,” Fleck’s current solo performance (okay—it’s solo plus three onstage slaves and one interpreter, a super touch which has Norman Galapin signing the entire show in ASL) is no exception.
One of the notorious NEA Four (gasp! “the one who urinates onstage,” he helpfully explains), this time round fleck investigates society’s fascination with, you guessed it, dirt. Our craving for it, an obsession which has moved the ridiculous from the supermaket checkstand to the front page of every newspaper. And on a deeper level, there’s our need to expose ourselves, to cough up our own private bile, or “psychic furballs.”
In his exploration of the “devil’s filth,” Fleck leaves no corners of his personal attic unswept: from his motivation for religious studies (“Two perfect white guys in the sky—my gods!”), to his personal outrage at nature’s perfection (“It looked fake!”), to his own standards of an ideal relationship (“I love you Norman”, he confesses to his dutiful interpreter, “with your worshipful listening!”). And, as he tears off and tosses into the audience one after another pair of BVDs he’s wearing, and taunts the audience with streamers of toilet paper, he also lays bare his own chosen medium (“I don’t want to give performance art a bad name…”).
Then of course he takes a shovel to our collective dirt. Just when you figured you were sick to death of the whole thing, the current Washington, D.C. hi-jinks are given a hysterical going over with the sort of sordid simplicity that you gotta love Fleck for. Director Randee Trabitz works with Fleck to create a wonderfully casual, loosely structured evening with loads of audience interaction, highlighted by a “Survival Seminar for the New Millennium: How to Make Money Off Your Dirt,” as well the giving of $100 “PayDirt Grants,” which entail two audience members giving a one minute performance onstage. Too much fun.
See, the loose-limbed, self-effacing Fleck is just so damned…appealing! In an edgy sort of way. Like warm and fuzzy performance art that isn’t afraid to make mock itself, or pull the rug out from under you just when you feel too comfortable. But then he’s there to give you a big hug, and do it with shameless, clowning mugging.
He’s my choice for centerfold any day.
“Dirt” written and performed by John Fleck, directed by Randee Trabitz, at LunaPark,.
Theater Review: DIRT
LA Weekly / THEATER PICK OF THE WEEK
February 12, 1999
Performed at The Getty Center & LunaPark/LA
Dressed in a queeny Cupid/Thor getup and accompanied by a trio of undergarment-clad furies (Melina Bielefelt and Ryan Hill), John Fleck sets out to defend dirt against a rotten public image. And defend it he does: Dirt is profit—whether it be earth, bacteria or (presumably Fleck’s personal favorite) gossip. With a frenetic energy that leaves him sometimes gasping for breath, Fleck showers his audience with equal parts insight, wit and saliva. Sure, he may bag on Miss Lewinsky (“Santa Monica, the patron saint of dirt”) and the “blow job of the century,” but Fleck somehow injects his idiosyncratic lunacy into this hackneyed topic. There is no subject or victim too sacred for Fleck to soil, including the interpreter for the hearing-impaired (Norman Galapin),
who stands dutifully stage left signing, no matter what Fleck hurls at him. Credit director Randee Trabitz for harnessing Fleck’s insanity with razor-sharp style.
– Luis Reyes
Theater Review: ME
LA Weekly Pick of the Week
March 24, 1995
Performed at MOCA, LA
The familiar trademarks of past John Fleck performances are all here: on-the-floor writhing, bursts of plaintive falsetto, the messy striptease of body and soul. But with Me, Fleck attempts a more comprehensive—and cohesive—examination than ever of the monumental ego that drives every performer, be that person a soap-opera actor or “serious” artist. We see Fleck emerge from a black-curtained womb located beneath a TV monitor (before a video crew clinically records the atlas of his anatomy), Fleck playing shoe fetishist with an audience member, Fleck “discovering” another front-row viewer and alternately flattering and tormenting her. It’s all about ego and the artist’s attempt to appear egoless, to be loved by others when the love of one’s self is not enough. “Why are you doing this to me?” Fleck screams to the camcorder team, “without me there is no you!” Fleck can transform himself from a fulsome host to a growling weredog to (in drag) a smug art hag who blathers a review of the show on monitors hung about the stage. Me has undergone an evolution of focus since it ran at LACE in 1994, when David Schweizer co-staged the show. Now, with the taut co-direction of Randee Trabitz (an L.A. Weekly theater critic), the evening rapidly pendulums between whimsy and confession, until these two conceits become interchangeable. In a sense, Me, with all its video, is a “techo” production; yet underneath its skin lives the human comedy in which we all appear. MOCA, Ahmanson Auditorium 250 S. Grand Ave., downtown.
Theater Review: A Snowball’s Chance in
Los Angeles Times
May 9, 1992
John Fleck Dissects Life in ‘Snowball’
~ Performance: Media’s view of the world takes it on the chin at Sushi.
Performed at Sushi Gallery, San Diego
By Frankie Wright
San Diego—John fleck brings to mind films of experimental brain surgery. A probe touches glistening scallops of gray matter and suddenly the patient rattles off long-forgotten experiences deeply deposited in the memory bank.
At Sushi Thursday night, in the first of four performance of ‘A Snowball’s Chance in Hell,” running through May 16, Fleck certainly rattled off. He also prattled, blithered, blathered, sputtered and spat. Words, song lyrics, groans and gasps spewed as if some mad scientist with hands full of probes were playing switchboard with Fleck’s brain.
Fleck’s effusion wasn’t drivel, though. He was in complete control of his inspired madness, a raging stream of subconsciousness, in one of the funniest doomsday messages ever.
The 40-year-old actor is known to some San Diego audiences for his portrayal of the crotchety woman in the Old Globe’s production of “The Granny,” for which he won a DramaLogue award. To others, Fleck is a performance artist, one of the “NEA Four” who sued the endowment over rejected grant applications.
The NEA controversy subjected Fleck to mass-media freak-in-the-spotlight attention. Aspects of his performances were sensationalized and taken out of context, attracting homophobic hate mail, barrages of calls from neo-Nazis and the like.
It’s not surprising, then, that the subject of “Snowball’s Chance” is the media and the manipulation of words and ideas to inflame and seduce. Fleck gives us a handful of characters who feed on such material and a look at the grim prospect for a culture that willingly digests it. He sees a society so busy looking in the vanity mirror it can’t see beyond its own image and impending self-destruction.
The small crowd who arrived at Sushi for Fleck’s hour long performance found a variety of popular magazines on the audience chairs. On the “stage” (essentially the performance site; Fleck doesn’t operate strictly within proscenium-style boundaries), stacks of newspapers crowded a gold velvet upholstered occasional chair and Oriental rig. Schmaltzy love ballads blared.
Out of the darkness, a humpback character wearing a hooded robe and miner’s light shuffled on his knees in an ever-closing spiral, muttering as he unraveled and read a toilet paper roll like a prayer wheel. Fleck’s unbroken spray of saliva and changed phrases continued for several minutes and included snippets and portmanteau’s of American culture, mostly a post-1940s mishmash of nursery rhymes, jingles, celebrity references, political personalities, and song lyrics (“over the river and through James Woods”), which became more and more furious, until he collapsed in his own insanity.
Perhaps this was a post-apocalyptic Jabberwock attempting to make a religion of our late-20th-Century cultural narcissism. Whatever the intent of the “prologue,” the delivery was tour de force, and the effect was both humorous and insightful.
“Snowball’s chance” had many such moments. Fleck portrayed a hot-headed male reactionary who erupted in vitriolic racist hatred as he read the newspapers. Fleck shifted back and forth from this redneck to a female counterpart, perhaps a wife, in another manifestation of the phobic mind—she twittered anxiously over coupons and grocery ads to avoid the “hard” news and her macho monster of a husband.
Fleck read a wet-T-shirt, segment from “True Confessions” magazine, acting out the characters, a lecherous male and idiotic female. He whipped out books of “wisdom” and read excerpts, trying to define love. He turned to the audience for “help,” engaging them in outrageous ways—dancing romantically with one, butting foreheads with another and humping the leg of a third.
Fleck cleverly snipes at the paternalists of self-help therapy. He also “looked for answers” in issues of the “National Enquirer” hidden under the rug, but ended up gooing over celebrity couples who are having babies. He careened from computers to Cher, repeated affirmations, and finally let the pabulum, the soap ads, soap operas, and cosmetic promises conquer his hysteria and render him mindless.
The unpredictability Fleck wields gives his work power. He is all spectacle, dangerous close to an edge, both dramatic and personal, and he doesn’t let his viewers merely watch. He drags them with him to the sweaty, teetering reality of the brink.
He is the foul soothsayer, the cross-eyes madman escaped from the asylum, a comic Cassandra, the wise clown, the derring-do brother on loves for the scary thrills he performs. He is the mythic truth-teller, and the truth is unattractive, no matter how desperately we wish to give it a media moke-over.
Fleck attached a coda to his piece, and by that concluding point, whatever disgust one might have felt for his excessive, visceral, guttural, epiglottal, breast obsessed, near-scatological, manic delivery, he had become surprisingly lovable. He concluded with a drawn-out sight gag, a scene without words, for a change, in which he slowly transformed himself into a snowball, metaphorically speaking. His final image, though outrageously funny, was truly a vision from hell.
January 31, 1992
Performed at Taper, Too/LA
A Snowball’s Chance in Hell
The titular odds are what John Fleck gives us against surviving media bombardment. His one-man show is about love and sex, self-image and identity as defined by publications from The National Enquirer to the Bible. Fleck’s rare genius is to perform rather than harangue as he metamorphoses from one character and situation to the next. (His silent segments are often the most affecting.) Opening the show, he shuffles onstage on his knees as a sort of holy Everyman, babbling the buzz words he reads off an endless toilet-paper roll. In a quick detour he’s following his birdlike hands from one light to another, and just as suddenly he’s singing opera to an apple that one moment is a baby, the next a lover and is finally pure desire. This Fleck devours and spits out, dissolving in childish terror only to re-emerge quickly as both father and mother, tearing through the newspapers that shape their psyches. And this is only the beginning. Seamless shifts find moments of mad brilliance that devolve into hysteria as self-help advisories become storm warnings. Fleck is that increasing rarity: a superb performer with something to say. Kevin Adams’ squalid living-room set and precise lighting, and Nathan Birnbaum’s sound design complete the evening of comic, pointed anomie. Taper, Too at the John Anson Ford Theater, 2580 Cahuenga Blvd. East, Hollywood.
A Snowball’s Chance in Hell
Written and performed by John Fleck. Opened and reviewed Jan. 24, 1992, at Taper, Too in Hollywood.
That brash John Fleck is at it again, this time taking hilarious aim at a current-day society that is overwhelmed, overloaded and undeniably besieged with information, regulations, medications and various dissertations.
Just as its title might suggest, “A Snowball’s Chance in Hell” is Fleck’s vision of man being engulfed by an ever-growing firestorm of media/literature/advertising. It’s a very funny piece that at the same time is surprisingly poignant and frightening as it encompasses statements about the growing rash of hate crimes and racial intolerance.
That is probably the biggest step Fleck has taken in creating his performance art—the fact that for all of its stage clutter and befouling, it is nonetheless an examination that is well focused and concise in its criticism of what ails our society. It eloquently speaks to its audience, even though Fleck himself, by the hour’s end, is very unelegantly bathed in shaving creams, mousses, cotton balls and hairsprays sitting in the midst of a stage piled with toilet paper, newspapers, magazines, books and spit-up apple.
This befouling is classic Fleck, but whereas his last performance piece—“Blessed Are all the Little Fishes”—tended to concentrate more on the mess than on the message, “Snowball” focuses these elements into a comically scathing indictment.
Rising from the primordial slime (which in this case is a pile of toilet paper on whose sheets information has run amok), Fleck becomes the Adam/Eve character who finds peace in innocence only to be tempted by the apple. The apple represents the Pandora’s Box of carnal knowledge, which—when eaten—spreads in turn to all facets of man’s intellectual-intake. Sex appeal sells, but as it is geared toward a heterosexual society, the ad in and of itself is discrimination and exclusive.
From pop pulp fiction to the pages of yesterday’s newspapers, the message is the union of the right/left connection, the male-female bond, all in a desperate search for love and security. And so we see this young gay man going crazy when he can’t find what he’s supposed to be looking for, despite all the reassurances from the droning self-help affirmation tapes.
It’s a brutal message that is emblazoned with hilarity as Fleck’s panache as a performer-comedian-singer sweeps the audience along a path of decontrol.
This world-premiere outing features the sets and lights of Kevin Adams with Nathan Birnbaum’s sound, both of which enhance the vision.
The piece was commissioned by the now-closed Los Angeles Theater Center, where Fleck performed 20 minutes of it last year. Since that time, “Snowball” has found its philosophic core and has materialized into a heady experience.
– Kathleen O’Steen
Theater Review: BLESSED ARE ALL THE LITTLE FISHES
April 15, 1989
BLESSED ARE ALL THE LITTLE FISHES
Reviewed by: Jacki Apple
Performed at LACE/LA
Performance art, with its penchant for confession and catharsis and visual rituals that expose the psyche and the flesh of its practitioners, has often been accused of narcissistic self-indulgence. On the other hand it has proven to be a prophetic art form, for ironically, the display of the private in public has become endemic to American culture. Tune in to tabloid TV any afternoon of the week. Watch Jimmy Swaggert’s tear-eyed plea for forgiveness on the evening news. Take a good look at John Tower’s past pursuits of so-called “illicit” pleasures. Let the guilty come before us and confess, become celebrities and repent. Or is the other way around?
John Fleck, the flamboyant Los Angeles performance artist known for histrionic operatic vocals, manic energy and flagrant displays of his private parts, has his finger on the pulse of pop culture, the place where life and art tongue kiss before the camera. Fleck is a master at inverting the territory. He tests the boundaries by turning performance excesses and taboos into cultural commentary.
In Blessed Are all the Little Fishes, directed by David Schweizer and presented at Los Angeles Contemporary Exhibitions (LACE), Fleck’s personal indulgence, ingestions and excretions became paradigms for the gross consumption, greed and waste of our self-destructive society. He portrayed capitalistic materialism and individualism locked in a coital embrace with the Christian rhetoric of virtue and sin. Reward and condemnation came in the same pants. Fleck’s rantings and purges, aggression and self-flaggelation embodied the resulting cultural schizophrenia.
In addition Fleck and Schweizer brilliantly translated the duality of values and behavior into the structural dialectic of the piece by playing two opposing performance forms against each other. The first half (or what appeared to be the main body of the piece) was almost classic performance art in its expressionistic and ritualistic use of visual props. But true to the eighties, it combined the arty messiness of food, sex and nudity with cabaret-style performing and theatrical savvy.
Blessed Are all the Little Fishes is all about guilt, and it’s loaded with Christian symbology, starting with a toilet as the baptismal site from which all things come and into which all things go, including a lot of fish. Accompanied by the formally clad improvisational chamber ensemble Fat and Fucked Up, Fleck slithered out in mermaid drag, guzzled wine, sang along with Frank Sinatra, cried and moaned “God, why did you stop loving me, why did you leave me?” and vomited. He preached from the bible, “Multiply the Earth and be fruitful some more,” urinated and—lo and behold! A goldfish emerged! “Tell her you love her,” he crooned, then nearly suffocated the fish by hysterically stuffing bread into its glass. An indignant audience member interceded, and Fleck shrieked, “What about Santa Monica bay full of your shit! Ten million dead Flippers. The best thing and TV, and they axed him!” Then he wrenched a huge dead fish from the toilet and hacked at it with a cleaver. Ravings from the bible alternated with more Sinatra singing My Way, a discourse on tuna sandwiches, the Bushes and a New Age “I’m getting better and better” finale in a bathtub with the chamber group playing “Silent Night”.
When Fleck switched gender or “character,” he was simply turning the kaleidoscope to another facet of himself. He countered camp and kitsch with a sharp confrontational wit. When he took a bow in jacket and pants, we thought it was over, but instead he launched into the second half—a straight confessional stand-up monolog in which he directly addressed the audience and revealed his feelings about the piece and himself. We are all implicated in this display of anxiety over sexual identity, career and impending out-of-control ecological disaster, and as he talked, he made himself far more naked than when pissing in the toilet earlier.
Nothin’ Beats Fleck
In “Nothin’ Beats Pussy,” playing late-night Saturdays at the Evidence Room,
performance artist John Fleck offers a veritable happy hour of Dadaist
pyrotechnics. Along the way, he reconfirms his genius at existential mayhem.
At the outset, our body-miked host works the lobby, offering highballs all
around. Using his inherited parental collection of kitsch recordings as
schematic fodder, Fleck’s subsequent direct-address musings carry multiple
meanings, starting with the title.
That ostensibly refers to Fleck’s latest persona, a would-be starlet of
sub-Joey Heatherton stature. Her trek to Hollywood debauchery intersects
with Fleck’s own flight from Cleveland to Screenland, with blond ambition,
familial requirements and orifice maintenance the predominant motifs.
Possessing a classical technique tailor-made for the roles Geoffrey Rush
keeps landing, Fleck gambols in jagged immediacy.
He pays attendees cash for their onstage participation. He juggles low-camp
burlesque and Señor Wences-style puppetry to embody Pussy and her co-star
Del Cracker, singing in a manner suggesting the lovechild of Johnny Ray and
Yma Sumac. And when something goes awry, Fleck incorporates it with
unparalleled reflexive speed.
The piece is less conclusive than its creator, transitions still evolving
and the resolution hastily achieved, despite co-director Randee Trabitz’s
knowing eye. Still, for demonstrating how to render life and art
indivisible, nothin’ beats Fleck.
–David C. Nichols
Theater Review: The Berlin Circle
May 26, 2000
Review by Sandra Ross
The Berlin Circle
The Cold War is defrosting at an accelerated pace in 1989 East Berlin, where the state-funded Berliner ensemble is now producing plays conceding the triumph of capitalism. In the audience for this particular performance is East German communist Party leader Eric Honecker (Tom Fitzpatrick), who enraged by the “bourgeois play” he’s just witnessed. A vomit-stained Heiner Muller (an oily John fleck) defends the turn taken by the renowned theater company (founded by Bertolt Brecht)—while simultaneously demanding additional grant money. But when Honecker and his infant son, Karl Marx, attempt to leave the theater, they’re confronted by an angry mob, which takes a break from dismantling the Berlin Wall to cart the newly deposed head of state off to jail. Baby Karl has bee left in the reluctant arms of advice-dispensing American Pamela Dalrymple (Megan Mullally)—clearly based on socialite/diplomat Pamela Harriman. The complicated, elliptical plot of Charles L Mee’s farce is loosely based on Bertolt Brecht’s The Caucasian Chalk Circle, which itself is loosely based on folktales about two women who each claim to be the mother of the same baby. Mee mercilessly skewers hollow rhetoric of all ideological shades, and in an auspicious inaugural production for the Evidence Room’s attractive new venue, David Schweizer’s witty staging is visually stunning (set design by Jason Adams and Alicia Hoge). Fleck and Mullaly are hilarious, as are Larry cox as tgghe narratopr and Colleen Kane as the au pair. Evidence Room, 2220 Beverly Blvd; Thrus-Sun., 8p.m.; thru June 25. (Sandra Ross)
Theater Review: The Berlin Circle
LA Downtown News
May 29, 2000
East Meets West…Berlin
Reviewed by: Victoria Looseleaf
Despite too many choruses of the Village People’s YMCA, the Evidence Room’s production of The Berlin Circle is a full-fledged, fabulous romp. That one of its main stars, John fleck (of the “NEA Four,” the quartet whose work was deemed obscene), portrays playwright/artistic director Heiner Muller, makes this performance particularly effective—and doubly ironic.
Consider Fleck/Muller’s final monologue wherein he blabs about the artist’s role in society, then throw in some guilt, the survival notion and the ubiquitous concept of political justice and you’ve got a helluva speech.
Oh, one more thing about Fleck: The guy is an undisputed genius, no matter the material, and he does not disappoint here. Fleck has honed a host of Fleckisms over the years—notably his accelerated vocal patterns whereby he seems to be gasping for air, simultaneously drawing the audience inward, finally bringing layers of insight, thought and—well, a lot of guffaws to the role.
Whew! That said, Circle is Charles Mee’s farcical reworking of Bertolt Brecht’s classic drama The Caucasian Chalk Circle. Consider, too, the final aria, as it were, “All You Need Is Love”, crooned in German, no less, and one might think Mee gives new meaning to the word farce. Mee can also write lines like, “Certainly the anus is a rivate place,” and the audience need not feel offended, but more, shall we say, sympathetic.
In any case, it’s 1989, the year the Berlin Wall came tumbling down, and Muller is directing a politically incorrect performance at Berliner Ensemble. Who should protest, but East German head of state Erich Honecker (a fine Tom Fitzpatrick).
Right. Then the wall falls, and an East German baby is abandoned by his mother and father (Honecker), only to be rescued by two women—she of the Chanel brigade—Pamela Dalrymple (based on the late Pamela Harriman, Megan Mullally does a stellar turn as the whoring socialite, although her high-toned accent sounds as if it’s been ripped from the throat of drag actor/playwright Charles Busch, which isn’t really a terrible thing), and Dulle Griet (kudos to Colleen Kane, who is exceptional).
Under David Schweizer’s usual frenetic direction, the 19-member cast comport themselves with vigor, including a couple of frugging soldiers. While some of the material would appear to be heavy, the play rolls along like a brightly verbose, well-oiled piece of machinery. There are sight gags aplenty, including pratfalls, a walk on a rope bridge, and a clutchless, engineless truck, courtesy of Jason Adams’ and Alicia Hoge’s set design.
This Circle is the inaugural production of the Evidence Room’s new space, and what a great space it is. With lots of bricks, high ceilings and a New York-loft feel to it, Holly Poe Durbin has made sure that her costumes mesh well, as does Rand Ryan’s lighting, which creates many a mood—from zany to philosophical.
Baby, baby, who’s got the baby might be the prevailing motif in this work that entertains and intrigues simultaneously. Larry Cox keeps things moving as a punked-out narrator and John Zalewskis’ sound design does the trick, the disco thing notwithstanding.
This is one circle that remains unbroken.
The Berlin Circle, at the Evidence Room.
With 2, You Get 8 Roles of ‘Irma’ Delight
At the Tiffany Theater/LA
Review by Laurie Winer
Times Theater Critic
Lunt and Fontanne. Cronyn and Tandy. Fleck and Abatemarco.
That’s John Fleck and Tony Abatemarco, and you can add them to the list of gloriously memorable stage couples because the magic they make together in “The Mystery of Irma Vep” is rapturously, operatically and fantastically funny.
“Irma Vep” is to a drag show what “Hamlet” is to a murder mystery. This two-actor, eight-character play, a valentine to the theater and to movie melodrama, was originally written, performed and directed by Charles Ludlam in New York in 984, only three years before his death at age 44. It’s dizzying mix of parody, homage, subversive cultural commentary and quick-change artistry established Ludlam’s name in the world of off-Broadway, where he had long been toiling. This new “Irma” – impeccably directed by Randee Trabitz and produced at the Tiffany Theater—makes it clear that Ludlam built “Irma” to last, to outlive the formerly definitive version featuring the playwright and his longtime partner, Everett Quinton.
Opening on a dark and stormy night at Mandacrest manor, a house suspiciously like the one in “Rebecca,” “Irma Vep” is a takeoff not only on the Hitchcock classic and any British film involving a werewolf, vampire or Egyptian mummy, but also on the type of B-movie in which neither the actors nor anyone connected with the project seems to be even slightly aware of the heaving sexual subtexts. Ludlam and his actors luxuriate in this special kind of movie obliviousness. When Abatemarco, as a sinister Egyptian guide, pronounces the word “sarcophagus,” or even “tomb,” be prepared to bust a gut.
But parody, hilarious through it may be, is not “Irma Vep’s” trump card. Ludlam carefully fashioned a play in which he gave his actors exactly enough time—and not a hairsbreadth more—to exit, make a lightning-fast change and reenter the scene straight-faced as someone else a moment later. This trick never, ever gets tired, despite its constant employment, thanks to Ludlam’s delicious writing and the infinite variety with which these two wonderful and seemingly inexhaustible actors carry it off.
Fleck begins as Jane Twisden, the gloriously sour housekeeper at Mandacrest, an iron maiden who keeps watch over all the odd goings-on, especially anything having to do with the hideous portrait of her dead mistress on the mantel. Jane exits to fetch dinner and enters two beats later as the man of the house, Lord Edgar, dragging in an anatomically correct wolf carcass that he apparently had just bagged. His wife, Lady Enid, is played by Abatemarco, all golden curls, frilly dress and pinky biting until she exits to see about dinner and enters one beat later as Nicodemus, the clubfooted groundskeeper at Mandacrest.
Ludlam’s lines are so delectable, and the acting so invested, that time after time we forget to watch for the next change because we become so entranced in the delirious way that say, Fleck’s Jane Twisden scans the room for the source of a disturbing odor. Both men entertain so thoroughly that it’s even possible to forget Abatemarco’s almost alarming resemblance to Charles Ludlam.
Even as it revels in silliness, ‘The Mystery of Irma Vep” transcends mere camp. This dizzying play is in fact an examination of what theater is about; it remains in continuous awe of its mechanisms. However many laughs it earns, “The Mystery of Irma Vep” is also a deeply humble bow to theater art and how its illusions are created.
Theater Review: A Midsummer Night’s Dream
Los Angeles Times
Monday, June 19, 1995
It’s Bottom’s Up With John Fleck in This ‘Dream”
The Grove Theater Center/Garden Grove
Reviewed by Laurie Winer
Times Theater Critic
GARDEN GROVE—“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” ends with one of the funniest parodies of bad theater in all of literature. Bottom and his troupe of workmen/amateur actors have been rehearsing their play, depicting “the most cruel death” of the lovers Pyramus and Thisbe. In search of entertainment for his court, Duke Theseus (Brian Brophy) selects Bottom’s play for one main reason: it is brief. Also, the alternative would be to watch “the battle with the Centaurs to be sung by an Athenian eunuch to the harp.” And we all know how tedious that can be.
Being a consummate man of the theater, Shakespeare understood very well how an actor can turn a tragedy into a howling comedy. Of course, it takes a brave actor, one who is not afraid of the terrible thespian inside of him, to do justice to Bottom. John Fleck is such an actor. In the Grove Theater Center production of Shakespeare’s comedy, Fleck gives us a Bottom not merely stage-struck, but awash in bad theatricality. Every gesture is pitched for maximum effect, whether there is someone else there or not.
When he first enters he seems to be waltzing with himself, his eyes glued to the mirror in his hand. Fleck is a lion ferociously in search of applause—which he wrings from his troupe whenever he addresses them—and he growls when he gets it. His need for attention is almost psychotic; he seems to be giving himself a bronchial attack in his effort to emote histrionically enough.
And that’s before Bottom even takes the stage within the stage. Once he steps into the role of Pyramus, he speaks to his audience as if it were a small, unintelligent child standing very, very far away. Not to be outdone, Flute (the funny Newton Kaneshire), embarks on a series of cartwheels to draw attention to his character, Thisbe.
Under Kevin Cochran’s direction, the rest of the production has its moments, but doesn’t live up to this vivid standard. This is a story full of gentle magic, watched over by benign fairies who sometimes take a hand in the changing fortunes of the play’s four young lovers lost in the woods. The fairies here are puppets of varied shapes and sizes, manned by visible actors in beekeeper suits.
Aesthetically, puppet designer Christine Papalexis hasn’t quite pulled it off. Each puppet seems to come from a different puppet universe. Peaseblossom, Cobweb, Moth and Mustardseed are tiny little bursts of white tulle, manned by actors holding long, flexible sticks. Puck—manned by two actors—the the next size up, and looks like Sesame Street’s Ernie, only aged and with gremlin ears. Finally, Oberon and Titania, King and Queen of the Fairies, are huge, about 12 feet high, and look like gigantic corkscrews covered in gauze. They have the faces of space aliens; they seem cold and interplanetary, whereas Puck is cuddly and cute. Nothing seems to go together.
Further, the audience must do a lot of work to see these puppets as magical, because it must shut out all of the handlers surrounding them. Oberon and Titania each speak with two voices, male and female, and each are handled by three visible actors. The stage is much too busy to ever seem ethereal.
The rest of the cast ranges from workmanlike to amateurish. Of the lovers, only Jennifer Seifert stands out, as a vivacious Helena (but she could stand to take it down a tone). Mike Stole brings a nice deadpan to the role of Quince, and her hair seems to have life of its own. A dog named Jan Gabin scratches fleas on cue..
“A Midsummer Night’s Dream” is the Grove theater Center’s first offering in its outdoor Festival Amphitheater. Under artistic director Çochran and executive director Charles Johanson, it has produced an evening, in the words of Theseus, that is often “strange and admirable.” Thanks to the cruel death of Pyramus and Thisbe, it’s even delightful.
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