Reviewed by Bill Raden
John Fleck has never been easy to classify, much less summarize in a single review. Distinguished by original texts that are always riotously funny and giddy, his signature spectacles of live and video performance play as phantasmagoric vaudevilles of the fragmented self that gleefully subvert culturally constructed sex and gender norms even as they tease the ontological boundary between the screen and the stage.
Fleck shows tend to persist in the memory as indelible images of don’t-try-this-at-home feats of transcendent, scatological outrageousness: Fleck making an entrance snakelike, slithering across the full length of a gallery floor while pushing a roll of toilet paper with his nose; Fleck making love to his own life-sized likeness, reconstructed as an animated collage on a towering stack of video monitors; Fleck urinating into a toilet of live goldfish.
His is first and foremost a theater of the body that realizes what Artaud called “the excruciating, magical connection with reality and with danger” — a connection whose most enduring if dubious tribute may be the performer’s induction into the NEA Four by the late Senator Jesse Helms during the culture wars of the 1990s.
With Blacktop Highway, however, which debuted last year at REDCAT’s New Works Festival, Fleck plants his flag squarely in an aesthetic of queer theater and film that runs from underground auteur Jack Smith through Charles Ludlam’s Ridiculous Theatrical Company to film director John Waters — with ridiculous being the operative adjective.
The piece opens with Fleck taking the stage in a tee shirt and a pair of white-side-striped black basketball shorts (courtesy of costumer Christina Wright). The black shorts quickly emerge as the eponymous blacktop for a bravura finger-puppet performance of the opening sequence from a generically noirish movie script (replete with camera directions) in which the mythic canvass of Hollywood is travestied through its comedic collapse onto the performer’s body.
As the performance scales up to the full stage and onto flanking video monitors and a large upstage projection screen (the pre-recorded video is designed by Heather Fipps), Fleck assumes all the roles — via some dexterous and wryly imaginative wig work — in an increasingly lurid and intricately woven narrative pastiche of horror exploitation films. The most obvious references are broad allusions to titles ranging from The Old Dark House to The Island of Dr. Moreau to Peeping Tom, as well as to any number of films derived from the real-life story of murderer-necromaniac Ed Gein (i.e., Psycho, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre).
Though almost beside the point, Blacktop Highway’s increasingly outlandish and hallucinatory “plot” follows the depraved antics of a pair of isolated incestuous siblings — themselves the psychically deformed product of a fanatical Christian veterinarian — and the mystery surrounding what turns out to be their monstrously inbred and homicidal offspring, to whom the script refers only as the Pitiful Creature, but who the sister/mother ironically calls her “Songbird.’
And while the performance culminates in a spectacularly grisly and fatal — and beautifully imagined — act of transformational flight by the Pitiful Creature, for anybody who saw Fleck’s explicitly and poignantly autobiographical Mad Women in 2011, there is never any doubt as to actual identity of the monster (the online teaser for Blacktop slyly hints that it is “based on true events”). For Fleck, all self-expression, be it of the artistic or sadistic kind, originates in the cauldron of childhood trauma.
Though there are still several problem areas in the piece — most notably an under-imagined and overly familiar satire featuring a poststructuralism-spouting academic — director Randee Trabitz and her design team (including effectively atmospheric illumination by Vortex Lighting) manage to pull the show’s disparate and highly complex technical elements into a coherent, hilarious and ultimately potently touching whole.
Roy and Edna Disney/CalArts Theater, 631 W 2nd St., dwntn; closed. (213) 237-2800, redcat.org.