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Review: John Fleck’s ‘Blacktop Highway’ gets political in baroque way

Review: John Fleck’s ‘Blacktop Highway’ gets political in baroque way
John Fleck is perhaps best known as a member of the NEA 4, one of four performance artists denied funding in 1990 by the National Endowment for the Arts on grounds of obscenity. (Steven A. Gunther)

When actor and performance artist John Fleck steps out of the shadows in the opening moments of “Blacktop Highway,” he could be telling a ghost story around a campfire.

The show at first relies on bare bones props to set the mood: a flashlight, a cigarette. His body serves as both the proscenium and the players. The pale stripes on his black track shorts stand in for the titular roadway; his hand, spidering across his chest, for a stranded traveler wobbling forth from his vehicle after an accident on a dark road. It is theater at its most essential.

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But the production values of this creation, billed as “a gothic horror screenplay’d on one man’s body," gradually become more elaborate. The story zooms out, so to speak, to encompass the whole stage at the Odyssey Theatre and even the audience. Fleck narrates the action as one would dictate a screenplay, and he embodies all the characters, both human and animal. Simple props and wigs give way to images and video, and this is where we begin to grasp the underlying point that Fleck has been steadily, casually driving toward, right up to the moment when meaning descends with the swiftness of an ax sinking between the shoulder blades.

Fans of John Fleck may have some idea of what to expect. He is perhaps best known as a member of the NEA 4, one of four performance artists denied funding in 1990 by the National Endowment for the Arts on grounds of obscenity. Fleck and his colleagues sued and later had their grants reinstated by an appeals court, though they eventually lost the Supreme Court case. (The court ruled the NEA did not violate 1st Amendment rights by factoring standards of decency into its funding decisions, and the NEA later opted to stop awarding grants to individual artists under pressure from Congress.)

“Blacktop Highway” isn’t a political play, but it’s not devoid of politics. The baroque plot — involving a suitcase of money, taxidermist siblings and a misshapen captive referred to as the “Pitiful Creature” — isn’t quite beside the point. But the production, with all its stylized artifice, serves as a vehicle for Fleck to play with deeper ideas about the nature of reality and representation, as well as our particular political moment.

Fleck drops breadcrumbs to aid with our interpretation. A jaunty academic breaks in from time to time by way of video projection, name-checking the French philosopher Jean Baudrillard and his theory of simulacra. Roughly speaking, it holds that as society advances, the distinction between the real and its image begins to break down, until finally the image determines reality.

Despite these heady and timely ideas, Fleck himself takes them only half seriously. The show, directed by his longtime collaborator Randee Trabitz, exudes more camp than horror. But as it progresses, some moments — including a female character’s recollection of mistreatment at the hands of a vindictive family member — read as cruel rather than creepy. And audiences may find themselves having to do rather more work than they had intended to keep up with the rapidly shifting POV, never mind the post-structural theory.

Like Fleck himself, “Blacktop Highway” isn’t easily categorized. And yet, after a week that included a shooting, massive wildfires and a doctored White House video presented as truth, Fleck’s exuberant phantasma made about as much sense as anything else.

“Blacktop Highway.” Odyssey Theatre, 2055 S. Sepulveda Blvd., West Los Angeles. 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, 8 p.m. Dec. 5 and 12. No performances Nov. 23-25. Ends Dec. 16. $17-$30. (310) 477-2055, Ext. 2, or odysseytheatre.org. Running time: 1 hour, 10 minutes.

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