“I don’t recommend it for the faint of heart,” John Fleck says on the eve of his one-person show Blacktop Highway: a gothic horror screenplay’d on one man’s body, which opens Friday, Nov. 9, at the Odyssey Theatre. But the provocative actor and performance artist isn’t talking about the menagerie of gruesome atrocities he will inhabit and embody onstage. Instead, he's alluding to something far more horrifying and unsettling — the prospect of his Eastside fans having to drive across town to the West L.A. theater. “It’s a trek going over there!” he laments.
A longtime Angeleno and native of Cleveland, Fleck is most often associated with the NEA Four — which included fellow performance artists Karen Finley, Holly Hughes and Tim Miller. The group were denied grants for their work by the National Endowment for the Arts due to pressure from conservatives during a notorious cultural battle that ended up as a case before the U.S. Supreme Court in the early 1990s. Fleck is that rare actor who has contrasted his roles in mainstream films (Waterworld, On-Line) and television (Weeds, Carnivàle, True Blood) with a series of far more provocative solo shows including Blessed Are All the Little Fishes, Nothin’ Beats Pussy, Psycho Opera and Mad Women (which won a 2012 L.A. Weekly theater award). But Blacktop Highway could be his strangest creation yet.
“Simply put, it’s the story of this driver driving down Blacktop Highway,” the actor says of his staged screenplay. The driver has an accident and ends up in a remote house inhabited by a couple who are both veterinarians and taxidermists. “Something horrible happens to him,” Fleck hints by phone from his living room in Los Feliz. “There’s a beastly character in a cage — I call him the Pitiful Creature. He’s the offspring of this man and woman in a house populated with cages of animals. They’re disfiguring it and sticking it in a cage — it’s all a metaphor for my life.
“I play all the characters live. There’s a lot of animals,” Fleck continues. “I start the piece off really, really simply. It’s Theater 101. My hands become characters. My foot becomes a character. By the end, it morphs into a film of video images. It’s a dialectical tennis match between performance and the dead media image. … It doesn’t end well for everyone.”
Fleck debuted Blacktop Highway at REDCAT in 2015 before taking it to New York City. But the world — and the political climate in this country in particular — has changed a lot since then, so he updated the play for the new run at Odyssey Theatre. “After REDCAT, we took it to New York a week after Election Day in 2016,” Fleck says. “We opened up the lens. I create a moment in the piece and try to draw a parallel between the horror in the story and the horror story we’re living through. We changed the ending, and we shot a lot more video.
“After the election and the whole fake-news thing, I riff on Jean Baudrillard,” Fleck says. The French philosopher “predicted that this time would come, that this postmodern media culture would no longer be able to tell reality from fake reality. What is real? What isn’t real? … We’re all kind of fucked — talk about polarized. What’s scarier, real life or fictional life?
“I tell a story, somewhat of a familiar gothic-horror trope. It’s all a fictional story. … There are definite parallels to this weird-ass family and my own family,” Fleck says. “Each time I do it, it becomes like a new show to me. It’s the only thing that motivates me to do it. Let’s face it — it’s hard work in these small theaters as theater becomes kind of pushed down the list of what people want to do. I can’t just do the same show.”
Blacktop Highway gives Fleck the opportunity to demonstrate his incredible range as an actor as he slips in and out of numerous characters. “The Pitiful Creature has the voice of a woman,” he says. “I used to have a five-octave voice; now it’s more like three and a half. I sing some beautiful arias in the show. … It’s not a musical in the typical sense but there are three big musical numbers.”
Fleck explains that the character Jane “is the star of the piece” and that she was inspired in part by Charles Ludlam’s 1984 play The Mystery of Irma Vep. “That planted a seed in me,” he says. “One source that particularly influenced me was Alfred Hitchcock’s Rebecca. My character Jane was inspired by Judith Anderson’s performance in the film. … Jane has been with me a while. There’s an old crone in me that needs to be expressed.
“I call myself an age pioneer. How many 67-year-olds are still doing this? I don’t look a day over 59½,” Fleck jokes. “A gay man admitting your age — we’re still age-phobic in this country. But you can still be kind of sexy and still vital in your 60s.”
Beyond the video elements, the show’s visuals encompass “a lot of wigs and stuff and shit like that,” Fleck says. The sound production is courtesy of Catasonic’s Mark Wheaton. “For years, Mark’s been recording all my sounds.” Blacktop Highway also represents a reunion with Randee Trabitz, who has directed several of Fleck’s shows in the past. Before the REDCAT premiere in 2015, “We hadn’t worked together in 15 years,” he says. “I wouldn’t have done this piece without Randee. She’s a great dramaturge too.”
Fleck’s upcoming roles includes parts in The Orville and Velvet Buzzsaw, a new film with Jake Gyllenhaal and Toni Collette. But his main focus right now is on Blacktop Highway, and the actor-writer is in a relatively calm mood just days before the opening, if only because he was interviewed right after an acupuncture session. “I only do it when I write these shows,” Fleck admits. “I get really hyper and can’t turn off my brain.”
Blacktop Highway: a gothic horror screenplay’d on one man’s body opens at Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West L.A.; Fri.-Sat., Nov. 9-10, 8 p.m.; Sun., Nov. 11, 2 p.m.; through Sat., Dec. 15, 8 p.m.; $30. (310) 477-2055, ext. 2; OdysseyTheatre.com.