American Realness

300 Words on Realness: King

300 Words on Realness: King

by Lydia Mokdessi
Published on: January 19, 2014

Neal Medlyn’s King, the seventh of a seven-show series on pop stars / iconic groups (Michael Jackson, this time) is big and brash, with a DIY vibe. It opens with Medlyn’s back to us, the gold patchwork curtain draped on his shoulders and soon drawn back to reveal a choir of four deadpan middle schoolers, backing up his spazzy strutting and echo-heavy singing. Surrounding them is a menagerie of colorful objects, bedazzled jackets, piles of stuffed animals, random shrine-like collections of toys and costume pieces. Distorted videos of Michael Jackson’s face, computer illustrations of a fairytale, and a reel of semi-disturbing images (snakes, skeletons) play behind them.

Medlyn chats and tells fragments of stories as he moves between piano and mic stand like a one-man cabaret show (he likes to think that “we’re just all hanging out in his atrium while he mists his plants.”) The audience engages most fully when his stream-of-consciousness crystallizes into re-thought but still recognizable MJ songs, sometimes delivered in a goofy, nasal, over-annunciation. Stadium concert traditions are acknowledged and subverted, like delivering a song’s climax while standing in front of a small fan instead of a wind machine and trading a confetti cannon crescendo for the pop a tiny confetti tube at the finale.

King is not a tribute (he wears two gloves, after all), but is tangential to the images and feelings we associate with MJ. Buried in the stories and songs are strains of childhood, fantasy, glamour, tenderness / sweetness (“oh sweetness”), universal love, (“what if we touched people just to bless them?”), and worship. There is a religious fervor quality to the work, or the desire to tap into some spiritual or collective energy generated / accessed by mainstream “stars.” King (like the six preceding shows) is concerned with the phenomenon of celebrity and celebrity persona / personhood. What specific collection of attributes makes MJ MJ? How much of what we’re seeing is really Neal? It’s a performance about performance, a big run-on sentence punctuated with nods to the codes and decorum of pop music, and a complicated exploration of someone with an equally complicated identity.

image: Ian Douglas