The program to John Fleck’s Blacktop Highway contains a quote from Stephen King, that reads as a warning for what the evening has in store. In it, the best-selling author explains that the horror genre’s appeal lies in its ability to connect what we fear in our dreams to what we fear in our actual lives. As Fleck’s horror spoof will demonstrate over a fast-paced 75 minutes during which, in real time, the nation’s collective unconscious prepares to wall itself up in the highest office in the land, that idea also serves as a tonic caution to our post-November 8 world. Blacktop Highway has had the presidential election deep under its oozing skin since its development at Los Angeles’ REDCAT in 2015, but seeing the show in the election’s aftermath is to know that it has suddenly become essential viewing as a primer to what lies ahead.
Fleck is one of four performance artists who successfully sued the National Endowment for the Arts in 1990 to reinstate NEA funding that was rescinded on obscenity charges brought by North Carolina Senator Jesse Helms, whom Washington Post journalist David S. Broder called “the last prominent unabashed white racist politician in this country” when Helmes retired in 2001. With the senator’s ghost now expecting reinforcements in D.C., Fleck’s fight for artistic freedom of expression will likely also require new soldiers, and they’d be well advised to see him in action at Dixon Place.
Blacktop Highway is “a gothic horror sreenplay’d on one man’s body,” making it first and foremost a showcase for Fleck who combines versatile acting, a razor-sharp wit and a well-read intellect. Fleck handles five human roles and innumerable animal ones as well; judging from his repertoire of bird and beast calls, a promising alternative career could await him as a zoologist. He also narrates, provides most sound effects and makes an appearance as an academic, beamed in via video, which is where this deliberately heavy-handed. savagely funny send-up of the horror genre gets interesting.
Indeed, Blacktop Highway, whose title not only borrows a cliche of the American landscape but turns it into a pleonasm to boot, excels at piling on details to get at what lies under so much excess. This verbatim reading of a fictional screenplay lobs at us every stock character and overdone trope you’d expect from a B-movie: a car crash on a lonely stretch of highway, a decrepit Victorian house with some creepy inhabitants, a taxidermy practice, an incestuous Southern Gothic household and its disfigured human outcast, a fire-and-brimstone father, a briefcase full of money, grotesque dismemberings, an animal uprising, a struggle, violence, more murder, an unsuspecting sheriff, a lot of close up screams and a final fade to black…
Fleck milks everything he can out of this Psycho meets House on Haunted Hill tale, including its risibility, by using a DIY aesthetic built around sock puppets, toy cars, wigs, a few household props and low quality video starring himself in a variety of homemade get-ups. Fleck, who has played countless TV roles on series from Cheers and Hill Street Blues to Criminal Minds and True Blood, jokes that Blacktop Highway is a career move of sorts: “I’m too old to get a job in Hollywood it appears so I said, I’m gonna make my own movie and play all the parts.” He certainly succeeds at this (though he is aided by Christine Papalexis’ puppets and Heather Fipps’ video design).
But then, in the middle of this merely amusing mess, the former NEA-4 artist gives it teeth. As the video-conferenced Academic, Fleck muses briefly on Barthian semiotics and Foucauldian theories of power and observation (who writes? who watches? who holds power?) before settling on Jean Baudrillard’s Simulacrum and Simulation, in which the French philosopher theorized that contemporary society is a conflation of symbols and signs from culture and the media that reduce meaning to endless interpretations that are totally separate from reality, rendering reality irrelevant. Fleck then casts off the illusion of his persona in a rehearsed moment of intimacy with the audience (“Can we just take a break from all this simulacrum and […] do something REAL, something LIVE, unscripted…”) to make the obvious connection between the outcome of the presidential elections and Baudrillard’s idea of hyper-reality – “a post modern condition where our collective ‘consciousness’ can no longer distinguish reality from a simulation of reality” – thanks to our reality-TV-star-president-elect.
Before you can nod your head in agreement, Fleck is on stage again as the screenplay’s abused Jane, holding the severed face of a wayward stranger that her disfigured child was recently wearing as a mask. We can no longer read Blacktop Highway as child’s play, a grotesque B-movie or artistic fantasy; it’s a statement on our political and cultural landscape, where we are, as we are, signs, masks, horror and the simulation of reality, all.
In the play’s opening moments, after the dashing, soon to be faceless William screeches off the highway, he emerges from the crash, Fleck tells us with his wry humor, “shaken but not terribly stirred.” If only the country will be able to say the same thing about itself, four years down the winding, dark, dangerous highway ahead.