Images from John Fleck’s “Mad Women” (via the La MaMa website)

So there I stood, sharing a cigarette with my friends on the curb outside of La MaMa. We were patiently waiting for the house to open for former NEA 4 defendant John Fleck’s show, “Mad Women,” a dizzying one-man mash-up of the performance artist’s life with the final year of the legendary Judy Garland, when one of the producers approached me and asked, “Do you want to be in the show?”

Now, I am not a performance artist (at least not yet), and this will not be some self-aggrandizing memoir piece about my foray into theater. It’s just that my proclivity for wearing drainpipe jeans caught the attention of the producer, since the show needs a skinny-legged boy to be an extra on stage to hold mirrors, martini glasses and picture frames for the fabulous Fleck. “Men in tight pants,” apparently was a wink-wink, nudge-nudge way of saying “homosexual” in the late 1960s, when Judy Garland was beginning to burn out with the intensity of a supernova, a period of her life that Fleck juxtaposes with his own struggles of personal and professional drama, quasi-drug addiction and being, in his words, a “freak and fag.”

In the glorious drag tradition of lip-syncing, Fleck passionately mouths grainy, crackling tracks of Garland’s deep, slurring speech extracted from her show at Coconut Grove in 1968, proving himself to be a true Friend of Dorothy. Navigating the tragic life of a shining star and gay icon brought the complexities of the melancholic reality and the sparkling illusion all legends embody. Simultaneously, he dug deep into his own personal trauma and history, from his slightly homophobic, alcoholic father to his Ambien addiction and his heart-wrenching relationship to his mother and her inevitable Alzheimer’s-induced demise. Perhaps most amusing and revealing, however, was his confession that he “periodically checks [his] IMDb page, to prove [he] still exists.”

After witnessing Fleck straddle between Judy, himself, and the persona he’s created, he literally holds a mirror to the audience, forcing us then to examine the personalities we have constructed for ourselves, displaying the fragility and mutability of identity in our society.

I bowed with John Fleck in a surreal curtain call, kicking like a Rockette, and with a final bow (and a final spank) “Mad Women” concluded, much to my dismay, for the moment I saw him I fell.

John Fleck’s Mad Women continues at La MaMa through December 11, 2011.

Alexander Cavaluzzo is a Pop Poet, Cultural Critic and Sartorial Scholar. He received his BS in Art History from FIT and his MA in Arts Politics at NYU. His interests focus on the intersection of fashion,...

One reply on “Channeling Tragedy, Comedy and Judy Garland”

  1. Nice write up Alexander. I find it fascinating how the “Diva” that inspires gay men is such a durable trope.

    Dorothy / Judy Garland’s appeal for gays has several layers. Her comebacks spoke to guys with a knack for re-inventing their indentities, surving against difficult circumstances, and making a literal comeback every fall to the gay nightclub scene (with a new pair of tight jeans). 

    For further reading / texture, the Atlantic’s Obit from 10 years ago is still a pretty good read:

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