Review

Despite a few bumps, 'Blacktop Highway' still leads to horrors inside the American psyche

Charles McNulty
Contact ReporterLos Angeles Times Theater Critic

L.A.-based performance artist John Fleck, one of the "NEA Four" infamously denied funding on morality grounds, has scared his share of conservatives over the years with his outlandish sexual frankness.

But in "Blacktop Highway," he manages to spook audiences in more traditional ways. Think lightning and thunder, a stranded traveler, the hooting of an owl and a creepy old house with a shingle advertising the services of a taxidermist.

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Fleck being eternally Fleck, there are also live animals in and out of cages as well as dead ones hanging on the walls. A cruelly deformed human being referred to as the "pitiful creature" spends much of his time penned up, though at night he roams free with his razor-sharp claw.

And if that isn't enough to provoke nightmares, there are crazy incestuous twin siblings, fire and brimstone zealotry and some deranged operatic warbling.

"Blacktop Highway," which was first staged at REDCAT's New Original Works Festival, is presented as a staged screenplay. The scenic business and camera placements are spoken along with the dialogue. The script is occasionally projected onto a screen, allowing us to read as well as hear the grunts and squawks of the household menagerie.

Fleck performs all the roles, human and otherwise. This motley crew includes a handsome stranger carrying a briefcase crammed with cash, an old crone who lusts after her violent brother while browbeating their love child whom they deep-fried as an infant, and an academic on video who offers high-minded and thoroughly nonsensical interpretations of Fleck's mad imaginings.

At Thursday's opening, technical difficulties disrupted the hourlong performance for about 15 minutes. Fleck gamely took questions from the audience about the origins of the piece, but a break was eventually called to fix the problem.

This was inopportune, to say the least. The jumpy, rough-hewn style of "Blacktop Highway" takes some getting used to, and the video went out just as a murder had blearily occurred.

For a moment it seemed that this staging mishap might have been part of the show, which takes up the subject of the unruly reality of live performance. But the delay left Fleck charmingly flustered and bewildered, and he seemed relieved when an intermission was called.

Once the production was back up and running, the tale grabbed hold of us. (Imagine a fascinatingly botched collaboration between Edgar Allan Poe and filmmaker John Waters performed in the manner of Ridiculous Theatrical Company founder Charles Ludlam.) Fleck may not be a master of plot engineering or suspense, but he is an expert at riling the unconscious and releasing the repressed like bats in a belfry.

The piece is still a work-in-progress. The comic frame with the professor is tired, the parody of an academic 20 years out of date. And the direction by Randee Trabitz (setting aside the technical snafu) isn't as controlled as it should be for a multimedia work this adventurous. (Heather Fipps' bold video design, interrupted as it was, is difficult to assess.)

Fleck's casualness can seem lackadaisical. Yet he knows how to make us recoil in horror by mixing sex, violence, greed and religion in a horror story that may not be classic Hollywood but provides, nonetheless, a frighteningly glimpse into the American psyche.

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'Blacktop Highway'

Where: REDCAT, 631 W. 2nd St., L.A.

When: 8:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 7 p.m. Sunday

Tickets: $20-$25

Info: (213) 237-2800, www.redcat.org

Running time: 1 hour

charles.mcnulty@latimes.com

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