by David Sheward, Backstage

Performance artist John Fleck, one of the NEA Four whose government arts funding was suspended by Congress for its controversial nature, combines pop culture with personal autobiography in a bizarre “psychological burlesque” solo piece called “Mad Women,”
now playing a brief engagement at La MaMa ETC after a run at Los Angeles’ Skylight Theater. Right-wingers yanked Fleck’s grants in the 1990s because of his frank exploration of his own homosexuality and gay themes in general, but today his subject matter would be regarded by many as mainstream, no more controversial than any other coming-of-age-and-living-in-the-world story.

The titular crazy ladies are two iconic figures in Fleck’s life: Judy Garland and his mother, Josephine. He juxtaposes a bootleg recording of one of Garland’s last public performances with home movies and videos of his mom in her youth and as she succumbs to Alzheimer’s disease. He adds commentary, drawing parallels between the legendary singer’s struggles with alcohol and drug addiction and his mother’s battles with his drunken father. He also finds similarities in the two women’s relationships with gay men, juxtaposing Garland’s bond with her adoring queer public and Mrs. Fleck’s protection of her “artistic” son from her macho husband’s wrath.

In between anecdotes of Garland’s excesses and his frightening childhood, Fleck regales us with tales of his career as a character actor playing nonhuman outsider roles on TV. Without bitterness or rancor, Fleck explains that he finances his performance art by playing “fags” and “freaks,” such as the lizard-skinned sideshow performer on HBO’s “Carnivale” and a variety of aliens on all four of the “Star Trek” spinoffs. His hilarious recounting of the six-hour application of the prosthetic reptilian makeup just to deliver one line for an episode of “Carnivale” is a highlight.

Performing in the intimate club space at La MaMa and loosely directed by Ric Montejano, the tall, gangly Fleck delivers his show in an informal, chatty style, as if he were hosting a party in his L.A. home. He’s so relaxed that he doesn’t seem to be performing at all and slowly draws us in to his funny, slightly off-kilter world.

At times the observations on the Garland phenomenon are bit too on-the-nose. At one point, while lip-synching to Garland’s out-of-control, inebriated nightclub act, he holds up a mirror to his audience to demonstrate the star’s ability to reflect the gay audience’s pain through her own, on stage and off. A tad obvious. But the majority of the show is composed of more subtle and finely observed vignettes, such as Fleck playing his 9-year-old self, girlishly performing the song “Dreamland” for the American Legion and being called a “f***ing faggot” by his dad. It’s a heartbreaking moment in a weird and wonderful show, with the actor-playwright exposing his most painful memories as well as his pointed cultural commentary.