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Mad Women

John Fleck's only intermittently engaging solo show riffs on Judy Garland, addiction, and playing freaks.

John Fleck in Mad Women
(© Ed Krieger)
John Fleck possesses a manic energy that would seem appropriate for his new solo show, Mad Women, at La MaMa E.T.C. But his antics can also make the only intermittently engaging performance rather exhausting to watch.

Fleck begins with a tribute to Judy Garland, claiming he has gotten hold of a bootleg CD of her final 1967 Los Angeles performance at the Coconut Grove (the veracity of this recording, however, appears suspect). He goes in and out of lip-synching excerpts from Garland's performance, while also imagining what it would be like for Garland's young son, Joey Luft.

Fleck places Joey's age at nine, even though historically, the boy would have been twelve. We find out later that in 1967, it's actually the young John Fleck who is nine years old, and that the performance artist is blurring historical fact to emphasize his identification with Garland's son.

Addiction surfaces as a primary focus within the show, whether it's Garland's overindulgence in pills and liquor, Fleck's own reliance on Ambien, or his abusive father's drunkenness. The performance includes homemade video footage of Fleck's mother, Josephine, and in one of the sequences, she talks about her love/hate relationship with her husband, and how alcohol made it seem like he could be two very different people.

Fleck's mother and Judy Garland are presumably the "mad women" of the show's title. The piece serves as a fractured meditation on the ways they affected the lives of their male offspring. Joey's narrative gets lost somewhere along the way, but Fleck comes sharper into focus as he tells some autobiographical tales from his childhood, including his ill-fated performance debut at the American Legion Hall in front of a disapproving father who afterwards called him a "freakin' fag."

Perhaps riffing on this idea, the openly gay performer talks about his Hollywood career, specializing in "freak" roles -- including playing a lizard-man named Gecko on HBO's Carnivale. Sadly, it's a rather lengthy sequence that doesn't seem to have much of a payoff.

A more interesting part of the show has Fleck talking about a pre-gay liberation hidden sexuality involving "men in tight pants." The performer even ropes a couple of audience volunteers that fit that description to help him out with a few tasks. The men involved at the performance I attended seemed quite game, and added significantly to the entertainment value of the evening.

There's a raw quality to Fleck's performance, which can be alternatingly endearing and frustrating. There's no denying that he possesses a charismatic stage presence, but he also rambles on in a way that diffuses the power of his performance, which at just over an hour feels too long.