review: mad women

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Mad Women

Written and performed by John Fleck
Directed by Ric Montejano
La MaMa Club (with Katselas Theatre Company), 74A East 4th Street
December 2, 2011 — December 11, 2011
production web site

Reviewed by Martha Wade Steketee
December 1, 2011

John Fleck. Image by Ed Krieger.

No one, not one person, is served well in this painfully arch and unrehearsed pantomime. Not the memory of Fleck’s mother (whose sweet aged image is shown in home movies and about which Fleck speaks with little sympathy or understanding). Not the memory of Judy Garland, who he misrepresents with the bizarre and false claim of a newly unearthed bootleg of a fictional 1967 concert appearance — for which he uses and abuses a pastiche of audio from throughout the 1960s, from multiple concert appearances to personal Garland biography tape recording sessions to a performance otherwise sensationally well received on her early 1960s television show and other sources — and the salacious inclusion of prurient claims attributed to Garland about her sexual prowess and finally wildly inaccurate presentation of biographical facts of Garland’s family. Not the “art,” as it is asserted in promotional materials, of John Fleck. In a piece that has been in development for some time and actually had a reviewed run at a Los Angeles theatre earlier this year (more on this below), we are presented miming to Garland’s voice, wig donning, mostly self-promotional and sometimes moving storytelling, and audio and video playing. Fleck’s intentions may have been to contextualize his own story of himself as a scared 9-year-old on a community talent show stage (a sometimes moving sequence).  What he has created here is something entirely different. Truth will out, and smarm never wins.

I must start with the misinformation and apparent malintentions involved in Fleck’s presentation of Garland’s biography, Garland’s family, and Garland’s performance career. And first off, let us put to rest, or correct, a wild assertion he throws out and that some audience members perceive as somehow true. Garland did not have a performance at the Cocoanut Grove in 1967 during which she broke down, forgot lyrics, and berated her audience. Fleck could choose to present his pastiche of materials from a range of sources as just that and inform his audience that he is drawing from those sources to assemble his own construction, and we can then judge whether that assembled mess makes any sense (or better yet, assess Fleck’s intentions for the particular selections and representations he makes for this material). But he chooses to present this pastiche (from concerts, from television, from Decca recordings, from soundtracks, from personal tapes for Garland’s never completed memoirs) as an event, for humor, to which he smirks and mimes. The LA Times critic of this show in her July 13, 2011 review set the presentation of this fictional event created from multiple sources as a pivot point for her review: “The show centers around a fascinating archival tidbit -– a recently discovered audio recording of Judy Garland’s last Los Angeles concert at the Cocoanut Grove scant months before her death.  Initially, Fleck uses that bootleg tape for a whirlwind camp-fest, prancing about the stage while lip-syncing to Judy’s songs and drug-fueled tirades.”

Well, I call foul on the “fascinating archival tidbit,” and am all in with the “camp-fest” conclusion.

I shall address the specifics of what I could determine from my single exposure to this show. Putting aside the question of performance rights in using much of this copyrighted material, I shall identify here the sources of some of the audio used. The overture to the Carnegie Hall recording (April 23, 1961) starts out the show. Excerpts of energized angry Garland recounting her use and misuse at the hands of others come from tapes she made herself, alone in a room, for an autobiography that did not materialize and were never delivered in front of an audience, and were never intended for public use in any form. Fleck flits about, smirking, in a sequence (this may have been a dream sequence) to Garland’s performance of “Battle Hymn of the Republic” recorded in December 1963 on her CBS television show that was intended (and received by the studio audience at the time) as a tribute to her friend, the then recently assassinated President Kennedy. Finally I turn not to audio but to biography, similarly abused.  In the actual year of this mythical 1967 performance, Garland’s youngest son, to whom Fleck is apparently drawing a dramatic thematic line to his own stories, would have been 12. Campy asides about Judy’s other children and two of her husbands are just superficially crass. Placing a fictional 9-year-old Joe Luft alone in a darkened theatre, playing with his mother’s make up and costume, then wandering across the street to begin a drag career is stunningly misguided at best. Dramatically and humanly misguided.

These concerns emerge, I freely admit, out of my own fan’s knowledge of audio, video, and biographical facts of Miss Garland’s life. My open reception to Fleck’s work before viewing it was a dicey proposition, and I knew my best efforts at critical dispassion would be required. In the end, even with all the issues I have already addressed, my biggest concerns (other than correcting historical misrepresentation) are dramaturgical and critical. This play does not succeed on its own stated terms. The women discussed in the play (Judy Garland, Fleck’s mother) were not “mad” in any traditional sense, or in any dramatically coherent sense that his work earns. His use of their stories, of pieces of their stories, is just that — a “use.” There is no art here. Video clips of his sweet elderly mother, who he reports died of a form of dementia, show us a woman in a hospital gown who is scattered but kind and funny, a woman who stayed with an angry alcoholic man for many years. In some of these stories of his mother we see and hear of her own love for Garland and her resemblance when young to certain of Garland’s attributes: “big doe eyes” and thin legs. And yet it feels as though these themes are thrown at the work here rather than folded within it.

Fleck mentions over and over in television actor stories, told as one would dine out on them rather than integrated into the rest of the “mad women” themes — “you do what you have to do.” Twenty minutes (or so it seems) of a roughly sixty minute run time are taken up by a story of involved full body makeup for an almost wordless stint on a television show. In the end Fleck brought on stage several individuals from the audience who seemed as baffled as any of the rest of us. He attempted to get them to sing along with him one of Garland’s (and Al Jolson‘s) signature tunes: “Swanee.” The young men knew not a word of the tune, but Fleck persevered, with one more dig at Garland: “Do you know the words to this?” he asked.  Seeing only blank stares he added: “Judy didn’t know them either.”

Blank stares seemed entirely appropriate to this reviewer.

© Martha Wade Steketee (December 2, 2011)

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