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This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theatre for KCRW.

Depending on your politics and artistic tastes, John Fleck is either famous or infamous as being one of what was called "The NEA Four." Think back to those halcyon days when the National Endowment for the Arts funded individual artists; John Fleck was one of them. What a concept, huh? Funding artists! Well, Jesse Helms didn't think so. He objected that Fleck and the others were...well, objectionable. More specifically, they crossed the "general standards of decency and respect." How dare art offend?!? Or even worse, how dare art take a look at something taboo or even challenge an entrenched bias. So, in 1990, the NEA took their grants away. Fleck and three other solo artists sued, won, and earned the moniker of the NEA Four - sounds sort of like a group of super heroes, doesn't it?

All this notoriety gave Fleck the badge of "gay performance artist" - and turned him into a sort of manic energizer bunny of the theater. He's been turning out solo shows and playing what he terms "freaks" on TV ever since.

poster.jpgIf you don't know John Fleck's work, you should. And his latest solo show, Mad Women now playing at the Skylight Theater, is the perfect chance.

Fleck often cooks with the same ingredients. There's usually a bit of lip synching, a touch of drag, more than a couple offensive innuendos, choice direct asides to the audience, a little frantic talk of how hard it is to make it as an artist in this town all tied-together with his sort of bug-eyed mania.

It's that last ingredient - the mania - that strikes one most clearly - a sort of desperate desire to please, to be liked, to get it "right." It's easy to mistake that need as something more than an act.

What's brilliant about his new show Mad Women is that there's something far more profound than mania: a deep emotional loss and respect.

The show is loosely strung together around the twin narratives of the drug-addled final performances of Judy Garland at the Coconut Grove and the deeply touching story of Fleck's own mother's struggles with an alcoholic husband, and finally, Alzheimer's.

Okay, I know the ‘cliche-solo-show-early-warning-system' just went off for a lot of you. "Gay performance artist"...Judy Garland...mother with Alzheimer's - Warning! Warning!

But Fleck has too much on his mind to fall for those traps. He plays against cliches at the same time he plays with them. He's interested in drawing deeper connections. There's a virtuosity to the way Fleck transports the audience from an over-the-top Garland to the fragile world of his own past.

The payoff for the show is a final set of vintage film clips from his own childhood. With that same nostalgic simplicity that makes the TV show Mad Men so attractive, Fleck let's these images from his own past tie together a slice of his own story. It's a story worth hearing.

Mad Women plays at the Skylight Theater in Los Feliz through May 29.

For info on the show text the word "curtain" to 69866 and join the conversation at KCRW.com/theatre.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theatre for KCRW.


Banner image: Ed Krieger

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