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STAGE REVIEW : ‘Little Fishes’ in Troubled Waters

Last March, John Fleck made a guest appearance with the raggedy theater shock troop, Theatre Carnivale, in which he urinated into a toilet bowl, extracted a goldfish from the toilet water, dropped it into a smaller bowl and began dumping large sections of bread on it. A few audience patrons lost their post-modern cool and one rescued the fish. Fleck continued sans fish.

Rather than lose his cool, Fleck the artist simply made sure that the performance reached its climax. The man (unlike most of the evening’s acts) reminded us we were there to hear his story. And most importantly, Fleck uses that incident for his own purposes in “Blessed Are All the Little Fishes,” now at LACE.

In the new show, a plant in the crowd breaks into the performance just as the bread chunks fly. Some withering “that-was-sick” comments as the audience exited last Saturday missed Fleck’s purpose: that the artist dare not ignore his audience, especially when it’s exercising reasoned moral judgment.

This is especially apt in a performance about a man entranced by theology and scatology, maleness and femaleness, all the while stuck on a weird non-stop train of evolutionary transfiguration. Fleck begins the piece sitting on a toilet as a fish and ends it sitting in a bathtub as a larger fish. He reads the Bible and desecrates the cross. His voice and body are stuck in the androgynous zone.

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Fleck’s mother is interestingly identified in a background sheet as “Irish Roman Catholic.” His monologue, all the while supported by a wacky, tuxedoed string trio, is one only a deeply lapsed Christian could imagine: tormented concern at God’s silence is mixed with tormented perplexity at his own self-worth. Mark Wendlund’s set design and Rand Ryan’s lights add the visual element of a suburban church gone bad. Perhaps too much attention has been fixed on this performer’s ability to manipulate shock effects and images of the body as a commodity. “Blessed” is really about one man’s dark night of the soul.

With the pain comes redemption, such as when, after the goldfish is rescued, Fleck turns his attention to the plight of fish everywhere. What makes this theater is that he is trying to make a tuna sandwich while voicing his concern. What makes this charmingly vulnerable in its own peculiar way is that Fleck continually reminds us of the boy who desperately wants to be in our good graces, but is always finding a way to muck things up.

That sense of boyishness is culminated in a compelling epilogue that is shamelessly autobiographical and as poetically lyrical as anything Fleck has ever written (he is a scribe second, an actor first). Fleck fans will recognize in “Blessed” stolen bits and purloined pieces from his past shows--his Virgin Mary and Chic Loud characters, the toilet paper routine from “Et Tu Tuba.” But, like the goldfish incident, they’ve evolved. His longtime collaborator and director David Schweizer has seen to that.

At 1804 Industrial St., tonight and Sunday, 8 p.m. Tickets: $10. (213) 624-5650.

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