John Fleck dons a distinctive garland

John Fleck is rehearsing in a tiny Los Feliz theater, and he's utterly naked.

Not naked like he was in the Reagan era, when he was leaping onto Silver Lake bars, dropping his drawers and belting out "There's No Penis Like Show Penis" to a roomful of rough-trade guys and spiky-haired punkettes.

Or naked in the way that made Fleck and his fellow performance artists Karen Finley, Tim Miller and Holly Hughes (a.k.a. "The NEA 4") into Public Enemy No. 1 in the eyes of Jesse Helms and other wardens of public morality, sparking a 1990s culture-war skirmish involving the National Endowment for the Arts.

He's not even naked in the ho-hum, non-transgressive style that now pervades mainstream pop culture, where Fleck has put in regular appearances in such family-friendly and almost-family-friendly fare as "Star Trek: Enterprise," "Carnivale" and "Weeds."

In Fleck's latest one-man show, "Mad Women," which he conceived, wrote and is performing at the Skylight Theatre, the nakedness is mainly of the emotional variety, and it's putting the actor in touch with two people who helped propel his outlandish, and improbably accomplished, career: his parents. His carpenter father, Fleck says, was a handsome, charismatic "big ol' macho guy" who wanted his son to be successful with money and women. His mother, a homemaker, loved movies and show tunes, and stuck by her son when the old man went on one of his alcohol-abetted rages.

"I had one of the longest-running roles in childhood history, of the perfect son," Fleck says during a rehearsal break. "I was an altar boy. Never did anything wrong. And because I did that, [my dad] hated me even more, because that was not what he wanted. He wanted a bad-boy kind of thing. But then I discovered David Bowie and Lou Reed. And I got out of the house, went to Europe, by myself. I'd never been out of Cleveland. That changed my … life."

If parts of his life and his polymorphously perverse art are the stuff of legal history, Fleck sees an odd parallel with the history, and histrionics, of another performer: Judy Garland. In "Mad Women," Fleck awakens the demons of drug abuse and marital dysfunction that tortured Garland late in life, and transformed the ardent, fresh-faced young heroine of "The Wizard of Oz" and "Meet Me in St. Louis" into a Hollywood martyr-monster.

"Mad Women" jump-cuts between one of Garland's last live concert performances as a haunted, slurry-voiced, tragicomic figure, surrounded by an adoring throng of "men in tight pants" (Fleck's phrase) and Fleck's own anxious theatrical coming-out party as a 9-year-old boy at an Ohio kiddie talent show. Dancing, vamping, spewing motor-mouthed monologues, mugging in mirrors and emitting high-pitched operatic shrieks, Fleck fashions a psychological burlesque show that channels Garland's ghost while rekindling affectionate, traumatic memories of his Alzheimer's-racked mother, Josephine, who died several years ago and appears in spectral video projections.

Fleck's well aware that, for some people, the mere words "Judy Garland" will conjure visions of "another bad drag thing." But he hopes his show about the legendary diva, rampaging onstage and backstage at the Cocoanut Grove, may untangle some of the unhealthy ties that bind a performer to an audience, or a dysfunctional parent to a needy child.

"I almost see her as like this mythological Greek goddess, all-consuming, all life-giving," Fleck says of Garland.

"It's almost like a mythological journey of self-discovery," he continues. "You've just got to … define yourself, not let other people define you."

Ric Montejano, the show's director, says that his longtime friend is "digging in real deep" with "Mad Women."

"This piece is probably one of the most vulnerable pieces that he's ever done," Montejano says. "He's not just a showman. He's got a lot of heart under everything he does."

For a man accused by the Washington establishment of committing acts of cultural terrorism, Fleck in person comes across as strikingly sweet-natured and boyishly eager to please. Tall and trim, thanks to a daily regimen of exercise and yoga, he moves with the manic grace of a silent-screen clown. In relatively calmer moments, his rubbery, handsome features (think Dustin Hoffman crossed with Geoffrey Rush) resolve themselves into a default expression of benign amusement.

The oldest boy among six children (a seventh died in childhood), Fleck was raised in a blue-collar, Roman Catholic Cleveland household. At Cleveland State University he majored in business for two years "until I flunked trigonometry three times." In 1973, trailing a girlfriend, he drove cross-country to California to attend the American Academy of Dramatic Arts, and found his life's purpose in performance.

Among colleagues, Fleck's congeniality and professionalism have made him a much in-demand collaborator, as his credit list shows. He has performed in many of the area's leading theaters, among them the Old Globe, South Coast Repertory and Evidence Room.

He has scaled Shakespearean comedy (Bottom in a 1995 production of "A Midsummer Night's Dream" at the Grove Theatre Center in Garden Grove), and Greek classics. A couple of years ago, he lent his inspired lunacy to Culture Clash's cartoon-revisionist take on Aristophanes' "Peace" at the Getty Villa.

His large body of solo pieces, with multiple-entendre, calculatedly provocative titles like "A Snowball's Chance in Hell," have taken Fleck around the country. He has been seen on screens big ("Falling Down," "Waterworld"), small ("NYPD Blue," "Seinfeld") and medium (video installations by artist Bill Viola at the Getty, the Tate Museum and the Guggenheim).

But theater remains Fleck's overriding passion, and lately, he says, he has been "starved for it." He oozes gratitude for his Skylight gig, which was developed under the auspices of the Katselas Theatre Company's INKubator new-work development series. He'd love to be doing even more stage work.

"I am practicing my theatrical stuff, but I'm not doing plays," he laments. "But my instrument is ready! Hello, Taper, or any of those people out there, hello! But they never call me in for any auditions. Oh — I didn't say that! I'm sorry, Michael Ritchie!"

Fleck may be destined, or doomed, to be best remembered for the uproar that resulted when the National Endowment for the Arts, under pressure from conservative politicians and pundits who complained that the government was sponsoring obscene art, pulled grants to Fleck and his three fellow performers, who then sued the NEA.

The NEA eventually paid financial compensation to Fleck and the other three performers. Although he concedes that some performance art can be "bad and pretentious," Fleck maintains that the NEA 4 were "morally and spiritually inclined artists digging for the truth — which can get dirty when you're exploding the old entrenched cultural, religious and sexual stereotypes."

Yet Fleck's notoriety proved beneficial. Television offers started rolling in, and, as he jokes in "Mad Women," like Garland he began to specialize in playing freaks and misfits. "After the NEA 4 thing, all of a sudden I got labeled 'gay performance artist.' I'd never been labeled before. Karen Finley was the 'yam-smearing feminist whatever.' And it's funny, I started working a lot after that, in gay roles. But hey, that's fine. I did them with as much dignity as I could."

Today, Fleck maintains a successful dual career, hopscotching from avant-garde performance work and solo shows to indie film roles and an upcoming repeat stint as an FBI agent, of all things, on Showtime's "Weeds." Happily involved in a four-year relationship — "he's a real person, not a performer" — he appears to have found a peace of mind that eluded the mad woman in the mirror at the Skylight.

A few weeks ago, Fleck went to one of his favorite spots in the world, Joshua Tree, alone, to write, think and gawk at the wildflowers. When he dies, Fleck wants his ashes to be scattered there.

"Really, I feel God out there," he says. "I love it, just the silence. You know, I've got a chatty brain."

reed.johnson@latimes.com

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