BWW Review: In BLACKTOP HIGHWAY, Performance Artist John Fleck Muses on Simulacra, Animals (Live and Dead), and Trump
"How's your grasp on reality?" John Fleck asks the audience in his own voice midway through BLACKTOP HIGHWAY, the LA-based performance artist's latest show in the vein of Charles Ludlam's Theater of the Ridiculous. The question, which functions as a pseudo-intermission in which the audience stays seated, must be understood in the context of Fleck's bizarre, ambitious multi-media horror story of incest, taxidermy, and caged creatures large and small set in rural Maine.
One of the so-called NEA 4 (along with Karen Finley, Holly Hughes, and Tim Miller), Fleck rose to national prominence when his grant from the National Endowment for the Arts was vetoed on moral grounds (specifically, the use of "a toilet prop"). The Supreme Court ruled in their favor, but the controversy led the NEA to stop funding individual artists.
Fleck is known for testing audiences' comfort levels and BLACKTOP HIGHWAY, in which the actor plays ten characters and mimics ten animals with eerie accuracy, is no exception. The sheer energy Fleck, now 65, maintains throughout the play cannot fail to impress. He bursts into operatic song every so often and speaks the stage directions. Anyone familiar with postmodern theory will recognize this as a conscious attempt to level distinctions between text and performance and author and aesthetic product.
It's chaos, but controlled chaos, kept together (just barely) by Fleck's consummate talent and perhaps, counterintuitively, his discipline. Most surprising, given its depiction of characters who surely belong in a damaged people Hall of Fame, is how funny BLACKTOP HIGHWAY is even in its darkest, goriest stretches.
So when Fleck steps out of character and asks the audience about our grasp on reality (which the first 45 minutes of the play has done everything possible to dislodge), we cannot but laugh and think, "Not so hot." The humor derives in large part from the pompous professor of semiotics (mocked to perfection by Fleck), who four times appears on a screen to provide commentary on Fleck's work. It's parody, of course, but the professor's thumbnail sketch of major postmodern figures is accurate enough to sustain the humor. And the more or less linear interludes help anchor the play's wild, imaginative wanderings, whose connections are at times tenuous.
Charles McNulty of the LA Times is therefore wrong to say the professor's remarks are "nonsensical." They make perfect sense if you know critical theory (Roland Barthes, Michel Foucault, and Jean Baudrillard). McNulty regards the parody as tired because he appears not to understand concepts like "the simulacrum" (Baudrillard), the "death of the author" (Foucault), or the shift from "work" to "text" in Barthes. The audience, however, got it and laughed knowingly at each of these vignettes. (Also, McNulty calls the professor's theories 20 years out of date; it's more like 30 or 40 years since those ideas dominated the academy.)
BLACKTOP HIGHWAY could not be more timely. Fleck confesses to having Googled "Trump" and "simulacrum." This elicits peals of laughter, followed by one of the show's most powerful moments, made more so by its brevity and lack of preachiness. For Fleck, Baudrillard's theory in Simulacra and Simulation that the "representation precedes and determines the real" explains the nightmare that is Trump.
With help from Heather Fipps' excellent video design, Christine's Papalexis' puppetry (and Fleck's dexterity in enacting her vision), and Christina Wright's costumes, Fleck and director Randee Trabitz invite the audience to find humor in horrors offstage and on. The program quotes Stephen King, for whom the "artistic value of horror films" was the connection between "fantasy fears and real fears."
It's too much to hope that we might reverse the precession of representation and real when it comes to Trump, but by playing with these categories, Fleck paradoxically offers us a measure of relief, if not reassurance, in a play that might be described as a Freudian James Herriot gone terribly wrong.
Blacktop Highway continues November 11, 12, 18, and 19 at Dixon Place. Tickets can be purchased at www.dixonplace.org.