Performance artist and stage/TV actor John Fleck — one of the legendary NEA Four, along with Holly Hughes, Karen Finley and Tim Miller, so famously defunded by the NEA in 1990 for obscenity — has a new, somewhat autobiographical show, Mad Women, opening at the Skylight Theatre on Friday.
“I'm calling it an existential roller-coaster ride with two hysterical madwomen, Judy Garland and Josephine Fleck [John's mother], and their two sons in tight pants, Joey and Johnny, who survived the ride,” he says.
Fleck says he doesn't take the idea of “autobiography” too seriously. “So much of our history isn't real. I tend to fictionalize, fantasize, and I mistake it for reality.”
Fleck workshopped Mad Women at Dixon Place in New York in November, though he's been tinkering with it for eight months. He hasn't had a show open for review since 2004's comedy Nothing Beats Pussy, in which Fleck, a gay man, claimed to be exploring his “heterosexual side.”
Nonetheless, he's been developing a number of projects. “I've been workshopping these things with REDCAT,” such as a political piece called Johnny Got a Gun, and Side EFFlecks May Include …, about cleansing oneself of junk food, “and they never go anywhere.”
Mad Women concerns the descent of Judy Garland. “I got all these bootleg tapes — Judy's last concert at the Cocoanut Grove,” he says, referring to the nightclub in L.A.'s now-demolished Ambassador Hotel. Fleck found a YouTube clip in which the effects of alcohol and drugs on Garland are evident. “I'm putting that together with my mother and her descent into Alzheimer's in 1967 — the same time as Judy's last concert in L.A.”
While tying the two stories together, Fleck recalled seeing his mother when she was in decline. “I videotaped her. All she does is watch TV. She was watching Meet Me in St. Louis. I remember this song, 'Meet Me in Dreamland,' that my mom used to sing to me.
“It's about a young kid trying to be who he is. My mom is saying it's OK to be who you are, but my dad was a big, macho World War II kind of guy. It's like Judy Garland is the goddess who oversees this whole thing.”
Two days after Garland died, the Stonewall riots broke out. Fleck sees Garland as “the goddess who gives birth and devours the earth as well. She's a mirror for gay men struggling. That mirror is an important recurring image.”
Fleck has a recurring role on Weeds. “I was the FBI agent, trying to nail Mary-Louise Parker, but then they stopped calling, and I asked what happened. They said the final episode was rewritten so that Mary-Louise got arrested, so the FBI was no longer required. 'You served your country well,' they told me.”
Since that news, Fleck got a call saying his FBI agent was back in. Such is life in TV, and in art. It just keeps going, until it doesn't, leaving legends in its wake.
Mad Women, performed by John Fleck and directed by Ric Montejano, opens Fri., May 6, at the Skylight Theatre, 1816 N. Vermont Ave., Los Feliz, in a presentation by the Katselas Theatre Company. (702) 582-8587, katselastheatre.com.