Elvis & Teddy Are A Real Trip In ART’s ‘RoosevElvis’ (4.5 Stars)

Teddy & Elvis (Photo by Evgenia Eliseeva/A.R.T)

by Mike Hoban


‘RoosevElvis’- Created by Rachel Chavkin, Libby King, Kristen Sieh, and Jake Margolin; Directed by Rachel Chavkin; Costumes by Kristen Sieh; Presented by The American Repertory Theater at OBERON, 2 Arrow St., Cambridge through May 29

In the brief opening scene of RoosevElvis, the weirdly brilliant production now playing at Oberon, Elvis Presley and Teddy Roosevelt (both played by women) are sitting in director’s chairs facing the audience, describing the early stages of their public lives. Elvis tells the audience, almost with a sense of wonderment, “I was unlike anything that anybody had ever seen before. I mean I really shook things up, man,” before lowering his eyes and almost shamefully confessing, “I never wrote any of the songs I sung.” To which Roosevelt gleefully retorts, “I wrote 45 books!”

That exchange between the two vastly different American icons – Roosevelt, bombastic and without a trace of humility, and Elvis, still plagued by insecurities despite his stratospheric status in pop culture – sets the stage for one of the strangest road trip buddy comedy pairings imaginable. But this work by Brooklyn-based ensemble The TEAM is much more than just an absurd examination of what a hypothetical conversation between two of the 20th century’s larger-than-life figures might sound like, it’s a surprisingly emotional work, thanks to the reality-based secondary plot.

Ann is a 35 year-old old meat-processing plant worker living in Rapid City, South Dakota, who appears to live a desperately lonely life, trudging home every night with her six pack and eating KFC by herself. But Ann has a special friend in Elvis, with whom she carries on conversations – out loud and in his voice. Elvis convinces her to try online dating, and she connects with Brenda, a well-educated, highly motivated extrovert. While the two hit it off sexually, it quickly becomes obvious that this relationship is going nowhere. Ann (who has never been on a plane) is terrified of living life while Brenda lives hers with a kind of calculated abandon. After spending three days pseudo-camping on a visit to Mt. Rushmore (in a rented RV instead of a tent, which Brenda finds off-putting), the two go their separate ways, but not before Brenda somewhat cruelly assesses Ann’s life with the parting shot, “You are remarkably un-brave.”

Ann is stung, and when she’s forced to face the truth of the statement, she decides the only way to change her ways is to take a road trip to Graceland (along with Elvis and Teddy), and her journey towards a “braver” life begins. The actual road trip focuses very little on Ann (save for video footage of her driving on the highways of America), but instead features conversations between the men that range from one-upmanship to heartfelt sharing, and they are wildly entertaining. There are some heated exchanges, as Elvis criticizes Teddy for being a privileged white guy completely unable to understand the struggles of the less fortunate, while Teddy derides Presley for his lack of true historical significance with the line, “You are a show pony, I am a warhorse!”

The personalities of the men also mirror facets of Ann and Brenda’s natures, with Elvis deep-rooted low self-esteem reflected in Ann, and Roosevelt’s lack of compassion for those who lack his bravado appearing as a less-than-charming character trait in Brenda. This is beautifully enacted in a scene where Ann drunk-dials Brenda to tell her of her life changing road trip, dolefully apologizing for her mere existence, while Brenda coolly rejects her yet again. Libby King (Elvis/Ann) and Kristen Sieh (Teddy/Brenda) deliver terrific performances in their dual roles . King has the difficult role of playing someone much simpler than herself, and gives a warm performance that never lends itself to outright pity. The lithe Sieh (you have to see the petite actress dance ballet/modern dance as Roosevelt) is (necessarily) way over the top as Teddy and is hilarious in that role, while her pragmatically direct Brenda is a fully realized character.

The show is a multimedia presentation, with a handful of four-foot TV screens depicting not only the outdoor scenes of the road trips but also clips from “Thelma and Louise”, which are worked effectively into the narrative. The show is close to selling out, but if you love unconventional theater and can wrangle a ticket, you won’t be disappointed. For more info, go to: http://americanrepertorytheater.org/events/show/roosevelvis