Must Like Loud: Neal Medlyn’s Explosive Seven Part Opus 

by Paddy Johnson on February 2, 2015 Reviews

Neal Medlyn, The Lionel Richie Opera

Neal Medlyn, The Lionel Richie Opera, 2015. Photo: Ian Douglas

Abrons Arts Center
American Realness
Neal Medlyn, Pop Star Series, The 2015 Emerald Edition
January 15-17

When a performer spends several nights grinding his dick in your face for art, you want to find something good to say about the performance. It takes a lot of guts to put your junk out there, let alone create a seven part opus. That’s especially true in the case Neal Medlyn’s uneven performance marathon “Pop Star Series: The 2015 Emerald Edition,” which ran over the course of three days at the American Realness festival. Throughout the course of his pop-star based series, I watched Medlyn’s dick fly out of beaded candy briefs, hump a staircase, and air grind through saggy white underwear.

“Pop Star Series” looks like the kind of DIY-fairy tale fan fiction a pop-star-obsessed gay teenager might create alone in his basement—or, in this case, with the help of his friend and co-star Sophia Cleary. Each of the seven performances is a different fairy tale or literary reference; each pays tribute to a particular pop star. This translates to scenarios about love triangles and unicorns, being performed through the music and personas of Lionel Richie, Phil Collins, Prince, Britney Spears, Miley Cyrus and Hannah Montana, Insane Clown Posse and Michael Jackson. All told, the series took him eight years to develop, a little over a year per star.

Like a pop-star-obsessed teenager would, Medlyn devotes more creative energy and zeal for the subjects than you can possibly fathom. He runs around hyperactive and in cut off shorts, singing Miley Cyrus and Hannah Montana songs. But while I spent at least half of all the performances laughing, Medlyn’s also tortured—throughout the series, characters repeatedly tell us they’re “broken inside”, usually after having spent a bunch of time thrusting his dick at the audience.

The problem is the plot is nearly impossible to glean from Medlyn and Cleary’s spastic performances, which are told only through song, dollar store costumes, and crazy charades. Case in point: Before we enter the first performance, the “Lionel Richie Opera”, we’re handed a program guide that explains the plot. The Queen of the Land of Unicorns has an affair with a musician, and they trick her fiancé into having sex with a unicorn. Eventually, the fiancé slaughters the unicorns and sales away. The Queen stabs her pregnant belly to get revenge.

You would never know this without the program guide. The performance involves Medlyn loudly singing Richie’s entire Greatest Hits album, spraying confetti and running through costume changes. Medlyn sucks off a unicorn dick affixed to painting. He sails across the stage using a piece of cardboard as his boat and two spatulas as oars. He stabs himself. The actions line up with specific events in the script, but take a lot of extra investigation on the viewer’s part to parse.

I liked all this, not because I had any idea what it meant—I didn’t even recognize that costume changes were meant to signal a different character—but because of Medlyn’s astonishing ability to transform humble found objects to act out faux glitzy pop-star scenarios. Plus, it has to be said that Medlyn’s ability to belt out pop tunes impresses. His authentic sounding pop-star voice and seemingly endless charisma carries the plays when the narrative cannot.

Neal Medlyn, Wicked Clown Love, 2015

Neal Medlyn, Wicked Clown Love, 2015. Photo: Ian Douglas

For the rest of the shows, the audience is only handed a few sentences of similar narrative recaps, often drawing from fairy tales and novels. Unlike the opera, these performances include spoken word, but they mostly come off as a string of disjointed dream-like narratives themed by the culture surrounding the celebrities that inspire each piece. Part II, “Coming in the Air Tonight” (Phil Collins), takes its stylistic cues from the hit 80’s TV detective show Miami Vice, (on which Collins made six appearances)—white pants, white canvas slip ons, Don Johnson projected in the background—and tackles the idea of surveillance and haunting past and future through cameras that projected live shots from the performance on stage, ghost characters and voodoo villains. Part VI, “Wicked Clown Love” (Insane Clown Posse), was themed by clown imagery and spraying Faygo reflected on Juggalo culture. It was dark, disgusting and junk food-filled.

Generally, the fewer alterations to the pop songs, the more successful the work. So while a viewer could orient themselves at least a little through the continuity of album in the “Lionel Richie Opera”, this was impossible in Part IV “Unpronounceable Symbol” (Prince). Many of the numbers were performed without musical accompaniment and were therefore barely recognizable. (I’m also told that previous iterations of the pieces often used much larger casts, which could have affected their success.) And of course, the plot, remained bewildering: in this case, the text told us the play “consists of two characters within the same person fighting and having sex and descending to hell before being reborn as the messiah.” I didn’t discern that from the performance, which involved Medlyn telling us that’s he’s barren in his womb, and then that he’s known for “deadly” huge cum shots. Later, Medlyn is killed and saved and reborn as the messiah through said cum shot. What this has to do with Prince is anyone’s guess. I don’t remember the deadly ejaculate in “Purple Rain“.

These dark moments define the performances. A scene in “Coming in the Air today” includes a grim moment where Medlyn rips apart a bloodied doll while singing “Sussudio”, and in “Here’s a Queen”, the Britney Spears-focused session, Medlyn is repeatedly beaten and drugged. I doubt I could have even watched any of this, were it not for Medlyn performing the equivalent of sustained creative backflips. (Medlyn running in place with his hands up while singing Britney Spears “Baby One More Time”, or spraying Old Spice to man-ify the stage area in “Wicked Clown Love”).

All of this amounts to an enormous showcase of pop music, as seen through the lens of the tortured gay male identity. By the time we get to the final scene of the final performance, “The King” (Michael Jackson), Medlyn is relentlessly throwing himself in a pile of stuffed animals, and the point has been made clear: we’re all fucked up, and as a culture we are destroying ourselves with an excess of things that feel good.

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