“You are a classy audience,” visiting professor and playwright Brighde Mullins began, standing in front of a minimal set consisting of glittery garments, mirrors, a wig, a leopard-print director’s chair and one solitary, sparkling martini glass. “And it’s about to get a lot classier because who do we have here tonight?”
“JOHN FLECK!!!” the audience screamed in reply.
The actor, writer and performance artist visited UCSB’s Studio Theater Friday night for a free performance of his one-man show, “Mad Women.” The audience was right to be excited.
“Mad Women” is an autobiographical piece that ties together Fleck’s family, his career impersonating “freaks” on shows like “Carnivàle” and “Star Trek” and finally, his love for Judy Garland. His relationships with his supportive mother and abusive father coincide with the life of the poor star — an icon for the gay community, or “men in tight pants,” as Fleck often says — in unexpected ways.
I had the opportunity to read the script before watching the show, but even so, I found myself anxious, excited and a little bit scared as I waited after Professor Mullins’ introduction.
Fleck is a legend with unquestionable talent, as I was soon going to learn, but he is still famously one of the “NEA Four.” In 1990, artists Tim Miller, Holly Hughes, Karen Finley and Fleck had individual grants from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA) rescinded because some right-wing congressmen and women deemed their work “obscene.”
Though the decision was taken to court and the artists eventually had their grants returned to them, this marked the end of NEA grants for individual artists.
You might understand, then, why I was sitting in my chair, so nervously anticipating the craziness that was in store. Let me tell you — it was the best kind of craziness.
Fleck finally emerged from the curtains in casual attire and went full force into his own introduction. He satirically referred to Isla Vista as “a laboratory for artistic experimentation” and talked about Garland’s dwindling career and eventual drug overdose, slipping into a lip-syncing caricature of the “Wizard of Oz” star.
With quivering lips, a slight stagger and wide, expressive eyes, Fleck became Garland during many points in the show, to different ends.
For Fleck and other “men in tight pants,” stars like Garland acted as encouragement and hope.
In one part of the show, Fleck tells the story of performing at the American Legion as a young boy and getting called a “freaking fag” afterwards by his tough, alcoholic father. In a later part, Fleck has a dream that his mother tells him to dance and sing anyway, causing his father to shoot him.
In a Q&A after the show, Fleck describes both his mother and Garland as “goddesses” who lived with adversity and still gave themselves to their fans — or, in his mom’s case, her children.
The use of Garland’s songs and dialogue is funny and provides a necessary lightness, but it is also an important narrative tool, drawing the audience through Fleck’s development into a performance artist and painting a touching and relatable portrait of his relationship with his parents.
Fleck’s skillfully timed and choreographed piece makes use of several video clips of his late mother and father, as well as the young “Johnny” dancing with his family. I was extremely moved by the footage of his mother, slowly and painfully bringing a mug to her lips while “Meet Me in Dreamland” played. I could feel the audience’s hearts softening with a collective “ahh” during the final clip of the family. I love that Fleck attentively turned and watched every clip with us.
The videos also provided a much-needed reprieve to the million-mile-a-minute cadence Fleck often uses. At one point he said, “Don’t you just feel like a tornado comes in and sucks the energy out of the room?” to which the audience laughed heartily.
Fleck’s ability to carry so much material and stay a step ahead of the audience at all times was impressive to say the least, but I was even more amazed by his improvisational skills.
Around the middle of the show, he stopped to ask if anyone had water and took a sort of break from the scripted show. I hesitate to call it a break, though, as he kept the audience engaged and cracking up the entire time. It was one of my favorite parts of the show, actually, and it wasn’t even planned. That’s a true performer.
This was a sentiment echoed by the show’s director and Fleck’s close friend, Ric Montejano, who participated in the Q&A. When asked about his approach to directing, he said that Fleck made it easy.
“I’m working with a Steinway, here,” Montejano said.
Fleck was wonderfully forthcoming with his responses to questions. He said that he had an epiphany about the various characters’ motivations right before tonight’s performance, the first time he’s done the show since it’s Las Vegas run ended last July. To do this, he thought Judy Garland would cling to the thought, “I need your love to save me,” and John would think, “I learn to forgive and I learn to love.”
It is sobering to hear such a talented performer talk about his true motivations for doing a show, as well as his reoccurring doubts and struggles. Fleck spoke openly about being depressed over not getting called back for acting jobs, and the general weirdness of Hollywood. To this, Montejano offered an equally honest response.
“There are hundreds of actors who could do those parts, but there is not one who could do what John did here tonight,” Montejano said. “I think this is what his legacy is going to come down to.”