What if Teddy Roosevelt and Elvis Presley took a road trip from Mount Rushmore to Graceland? According to the TEAM (the company behind Mission Drift and Particularly in the Heartland), it would turn into the most awesome buddy comedy in American history. Their newest work, RoosevElvis, which was collaboratively devised by Director Rachel Chavkin (Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812), Jake Margolin, and the two actresses in the show (we’ll get to them later), is making its world premiere at the Bushwick Starr. It’s the tale of one woman’s journey to find herself, but in typical TEAM fashion, it explores so much more, from the limits of hero worship to the impossible standards of masculinity in America, and all with thrilling athleticism and unfailing intelligence. You’ll definitely walk away with a lot to chew on.
Ann (Libby King) is a 35-year-old meat-processing-plant employee from Rapid City, South Dakota. She’s also obsessed with Elvis Presley. Ann increasingly engages in imaginary conversations with The King when she is home alone. After completing a disastrous RV trip to Mount Rushmore with Brenda (Kristen Sieh), a new fling she met online, Ann decides to plan her own one-woman road trip to Graceland. Along the way, her imaginary friend is joined by his personal hero, the 26th President of the United States, Theodore Roosevelt. The two of them ride to Memphis, karate-chopping and old-timey boxing their way across America’s heartland.
“I wrote forty-five books,” says Sieh in a pristine mid-Atlantic dialect while peering, wide-eyed over the side-whiskers epoxied to her face. The audience responds with the earliest of many hearty laughs. Columnist Alex Pareene wrote, “Being president seems kinda awful, honestly, unless you’re superhumanly manic.” The tireless Sieh’s Roosevelt not only has all the energy of a bull moose, but he’s also an egomaniac, obsessed with his own carefully manicured legend. “I killed thousands of animals,” he beams. Yet despite all his self-professed virile machismo, thanks to Sieh’s beguilingly androgynous performance we never forget that TR is an effete Harvard-educated New Yorker.
King turns in a far-more-convincingly masculine performance as Elvis. (Sieh’s Roosevelt pronounces his name “El-Veeze.”) He’s the strong silent type, suffering under the weight of his own image and blitzed out if his mind by the end. Meanwhile, TR glides seamlessly over the wave of Roosevelt-mania, like a deranged water-skier. “I’m sorry if my superiority offends you,” he blithely tells El-veeze. But if anyone can trip up this Rough Rider, it’s the King of Rock and Roll.
By having both of these paragons of American masculinity portrayed by women, the TEAM exposes the performative aspects of the public lives of these two figures who have irrevocably influenced what it means to be an American man. They really do border on ridiculous. It suggests that our ideas about masculinity were built by what were essentially PR campaigns to sell a political candidate and a rock-and-roll singer. It was never real.
But it’s not just a play about academic notions of masculinity and femininity. This isn’t a sex-and-gender course, but the story of a real woman and her struggle to live in a country that has certain expectations to which she does not conform. Ann’s story is always at the center of RoosevElvis.
Chavkin keeps the play rolling along with caffeinated gusto, with the one exception of a campfire scene that seems to drag on for an unnecessarily long time. Just when you think you’ve seen its limits, Nick Vaughan’s versatile set unfolds further to create new playing spaces, opening up a vast prairie within the confines of the Bushwick Starr. Joe Cantalupo’s well-executed projections (video footage by Andrew Schneider) fill in the gaps and further color the proceedings onstage: A diner scene between Ann and Brenda is done with the two actresses in chairs on a black stage, while we see video of them eating food at an actual diner projected overhead.
Despite this muscular media design, RoosevElvis is unapologetically theatrical, with Kuroko-esque stagehands moving around the scenery and lightning-quick costume changes. It is also a thoughtful and relevant story on which you will be glad to have spent 90 minutes of your time. I guarantee you will be thinking about RoosevElvis long after the show is over.