Right from the top, it's evident that RoosevElvis is not your ordinary take on history or gender, nor does it have an orderly chronological plot. Teddy Roosevelt and Elvis Presley come onstage first, brought to life by Kristen Sieh and Libby King who soon morph into Brenda, a recent divorcée, and Ann, a closeted gay woman. The pair meet through a singles add and take off together for a weekend on the road, à la Thelma and Louise, but with an identity twist.
Now playing at American Repertory Theater's Oberon space, the production by the Team is an import that premiered in 2013 at the Bushwick Starr, in Brooklyn, New York. Created by King, Sieh, Rachel Chavkin, and Jake Margolin, the sold-out revival in Cambridge runs through May 29.
Sieh, as Teddy, has a handle-bar mustache pasted to her/his cheeks and dresses in cowboy clothes, hat, and the iconic Roosevelt gold-rimmed glasses. King, as Elvis, wears a black curly fright wig, white T-shirt and underwear, and carries a bottle of beer. When the two of them have a go at each other, they sort out their differences. Teddy who speaks in a whisker-thin, high voice with an East Coast accent is a Harvard educated rich boy, who self-propelled himself into a strong man and political leader. With his soft, Southern drawl, Elvis is self-deprecating about his past except for his love for his mother. He's the poor white kid from Georgia who made it on his own and has nothing more to prove.
Amazingly, the men find that they like each other and share an affinity in their legacies as American heroes. Their scenes alternate with those of Ann and Brenda, headed for Mount Rushmore in the Badlands National Park, South Dakota, to view the gigantic sculpture of the Four Presidents. The lonely Ann has a close relationship with her imaginary friend, Elvis; Brenda admires Teddy for his accomplishments.
Ann is a down-trodden woman who has never traveled anywhere by train or plane, not even to Graceland to visit Elvis Central. Brenda is more sophisticated, ready to push Ann to risk-taking, even while she lets her new friend down. One scene takes place in a restaurant where Ann and Brenda transform into two waitresses, shown in a silent film clip running on the video screens at either side of the stage, returning back to character to eat dinner together in their weekend motel room.
The cat's-cradle-like involvement of the four characters is presented through fantasy, reality, nearly improbable scene changes, a running splice of disparate videos, and some onstage shenanigans, including song and dance. Sieh is an especially adept mover, performing a send-up of Ann-Margret in one of her more torrid numbers, and a poignant balletic interlude as Teddy when he/she is lost in memories of past exploits. King croons several of Elvis' songs while playing Ann for her sadness and inescapable dilemma. She is not quite ready to settle for life in her job on the line in the meat-packing plant, but she lacks the courage to change. When she finally breaks out, you want to cheer her on.
Although the variations of macho behavior that define the male image, and the freedom to choose one's gender identity in 21st-century America form the dual spine of the 90-minute show, the text and visuals are even more complicated than described. Though the story unfolds with humor, the kidding is laced with the wish that history had turned out differently, at least for Elvis. Larger than life, but somehow whittled down to our own reflections, Teddy and Elvis and Ann and Brenda, embody more truth than the metaphors that they represent in this imaginative, theatrical collage.