John Fleck brings to mind films of experimental brain surgery. A probe touches glistening scallops of gray matter and suddenly the patient rattles off long-forgotten experiences deeply deposited in the memory bank.
At Sushi Thursday night, in the first of four performances of "A Snowball's Chance in Hell," running through May 16, Fleck certainly rattled off. He also prattled, blithered, blathered, sputtered and spat. Words, song lyrics, groans and gasps spewed as if some mad scientist with hands full of probes were playing switchboard with Fleck's brain.
Fleck's effusion wasn't drivel, though. He was in complete control of his inspired madness, a raging stream of subconsciousness, in one of the funniest doomsday messages ever.
The 40-year-old actor is known to some San Diego audiences for his portrayal of the crotchety woman in the Old Globe's production of "The Granny," for which he won a Drama-Logue award. To others, Fleck is a performance artist, one of the "NEA Four" who sued the endowment over rejected grant applications.
The NEA controversy subjected Fleck to mass-media freak-in-the-spotlight attention. Aspects of his performances were sensationalized and taken out of context, attracting homophobic hate mail, barrages of calls from neo-Nazis and the like.
It's not surprising, then, that the subject of "Snowball's Chance" is the media and the manipulation of words and ideas to inflame and seduce. Fleck gives us a handful of characters who feed on such material and a look at the grim prospect for a culture that willingly digests it. He sees a society so busy looking in the vanity mirror, it can't see beyond its own image and impending self-destruction.
The small crowd who arrived at Sushi for Fleck's hourlong performance found a variety of popular magazines on the audience chairs. On the "stage" (essentially the performance site; Fleck doesn't operate strictly within proscenium-style boundaries), stacks of newspapers crowded a gold velvet upholstered occasional chair and Oriental rug. Schmaltzy love ballads blared.
Out of the darkness, a humpback character wearing a hooded robe and miner's light shuffled on his knees in an ever-closing spiral, muttering as he unraveled and read a toilet paper roll like a prayer wheel. Fleck's unbroken spray of saliva and chanted phrases continued for several minutes and included snippets and portmanteau's of American culture, mostly a post-1940s mishmash of nursery rhymes, jingles, celebrity references, political personalities, and song lyrics ("over the river and through James Woods"), which became more and more furious, until he collapsed in his own insanity.
Perhaps this was a post-apocalyptic Jabberwock attempting to make a religion of our late-20th-Century cultural narcissism. Whatever the intent of this "prologue," the delivery was tour de force, and the effect was both humorous and insightful.
"Snowball's Chance" had many such moments. Fleck portrayed a hot-headed male reactionary who erupted in vitriolic racist hatred as he read the newspapers. Fleck shifted back and forth from this redneck to a female counterpart, perhaps a wife, in another manifestation of the phobic mind--she twittered anxiously over coupons and grocery ads to avoid the "hard" news and her macho monster of a husband.
Fleck read a wet-T-shirt segment from "True Confessions" magazine, acting out the characters, a lecherous male and idiotic female. He whipped out books of "wisdom" and read excerpts, trying to define love. He turned to the audience for "help," engaging them in outrageous ways--dancing romantically with one, butting foreheads with another and humping the leg of a third.
Fleck cleverly snipes at the paternalists of self-help therapy. He also "looked for answers" in issues of the "National Enquirer" hidden under the rug, but ended up gooing over celebrity couples who are having babies. He careened from computers to Cher, repeated affirmations, and finally let the pabulum, the soap ads, soap operas, and cosmetic promises conquer his hysteria and render him mindless.
The unpredictability Fleck wields gives his work power. He is all spectacle, dangerously close to an edge, both dramatic and personal, and he doesn't let his viewers merely watch. He drags them with him to the sweaty, teetering reality of the brink.
He is the foul soothsayer, the cross-eyed madman escaped from the asylum, a comic Cassandra, the wise clown, the derring-do brother one loves for the scary thrills he performs. He is the mythic truth-teller, and the truth is unattractive, no matter how desperately we wish to give it a media make-over.
Flack attached a coda to his piece, and by that concluding point, whatever disgust one might have felt for his excessive, visceral, guttural, epiglottal, breast obsessed, near-scatological, manic delivery, he had become surprisingly lovable. He concluded with a drawn-out sight gag, a scene without words, for a change, in which he slowly transformed himself into a snowball, metaphorically speaking. His final image, though outrageously funny, was truly a vision from hell.
* "A Snowball's Chance in Hell" is at 8 p.m. today and Saturday, and 8 p.m. May 16 at Sushi Performance and Visual Art, 852 8th Ave. Tickets and reservation information, 235-8466.