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Theatre Journal 56.2 (2004) 281-283
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John Fleck's solo performance piece, Nothin' Beats Pussy, is structured around a particular traumatic event from Fleck's adolescence: being caught wearing his mother's blond wig, red lipstick and nightgown by his ex-army officer father in his Midwest suburban home one October afternoon. After a short, awkward exchange, his father's final word on the matter to his son was the Delphic declaration, "Nothing beats a pussy." ("What could this mean?" Fleck asks. "Does it mean he has tried something else?") The word "pussy" resonates within Fleck's unconscious, becoming the focal point of multiple associative chains and overdetermined images and identifications that provides a loose shape to his frantic song-and-dance show. Autobiographical narrative does not function in this show as an exercise in empty narcissism, therapeutic confession, or cathartic release. Nothin' Beats Pussy offers a description, rather than an analysis or explanation, of the psychic processes by which queer youth survive in environments simultaneously generative of and hostile toward their desires and selfhoods. At the same time Fleck plays with the tension between that queer child and the queer adult she or he becomes. He stages the phenomenology of his unconscious, skating over the surface of ego-forming and ego-fragmenting events, sounds, and bits of experience, rather than submerging into his self and seeking answers, resolution, or wholeness.
It seems fitting that the mise en scène of Fleck's unconscious would be a half-empty nightclub blurring into a suburban Midwest living room. He and his niece Ashley (from Ohio but touring with Fleck) welcomed the audience into La MaMa's cabaret performance space, personally offering each guest sugar cookies and Jim Beam highballs. Easy-listening record albums from the 1960s filled the space, lining the back of the stage, stacked on two prominent music stands, and spreading outward along the walls into the nightclub: Ray Coniff, Peggy Lee, Rosemary Clooney, Andy Williams, Barbara Streisand, Mantovani, and a comprehensive selection of television recording families, including the Lennon Sisters and the King Family (an image of this thirty-nine-member Mormon performing family is projected on the rear of the stage). The albums, Fleck mentions offhandedly, were inherited from his parents after their death. The King Family was a site of desire for the entire family, who would gather together around the television once a week and project onto the variety show their own fantasies of all-American familial perfection ("We all wanted to be the King family, not," he utters with disgust, "the Fleck family"). The shiny vinyl records and the faded Technicolor images on the album jackets present an oppressive disconnect between the images of the recording stars on their surfaces and the dreary Midwest living room in which they would be played. After introducing us to the albums and describing some of his family, Fleck announces that the show will start in a few minutes: "I'm just warming up, I could do it backstage or out here—I might as well do it out here." There is no backstage; like the flat, two-dimensional records, everything is surface, inscribed with sound and memory.
Through manic streams of consciousness and free associations, Fleck revisits the rich identificatory fantasy world he created for himself as a child, where he could become other people and imagine a narrative for his self and his desires. The originality and beauty of Nothin' Beats Pussy is the way that Fleck avoids trying to make sense of his past, instead portraying the processes of his psyche as he tries to ameliorate the shame and loneliness of his childhood. He tells the audience about Polly, also known as Pussy, a nickname that, for an adolescent Fleck, drips with blue-blood upper class style: "Pussy loves high tea." As Fleck describes [End Page 281] this figment from his youth, he fashions his hand into a blond puppet, and Pussy comes to life on stage. Pussy, he tells us...