Of all the people who might pair up for a road trip, Theodore Roosevelt and Elvis Presley are quite the odd couple. But that’s a major part of the plot of RoosevElvis by New York theater company The TEAM, coming to the Walker for a three-night stand starting Thursday.
The story follows Ann (played Libby King), a painfully shy, lesbian meat packer who channels the spirit of Elvis Presley. With The King’s encouragement, Ann befriends Brenda (Kristen Sieh), a taxidermist divorcee and Roosevelt admirer. When the couple’s courtship takes a wrong turn, Ann heads toward Graceland with the two iconic alter-egos wrestling over who she will become.
Developed by King, Sieh, director Rachel Chavkin, and associate director Jake Margolin, the production was inspired by the actors’ respective obsessions with Roosevelt and Presley. Sieh became intrigued with Roosevelt through Edmund Morris’s biographical trilogy, while King found fascination in Presley impersonators in Las Vegas. Both legends built their own identities, and enjoyed long-lasting notoriety because of it. But that’s where the similarities end.
“They’re two oppositional images of gender and masculinity,” explains Chavkin. “Teddy is deeply patrician, very Victorian, a really famous prude [but] he was very progressive. He certainly supported suffrage for women. At the same time, he was conservative in terms of his moral values and how ordered he wanted the world to be. Elvis, on the other hand, comes along mid-century and basically freaks the shit out of the entire country. That is because he doesn’t sound totally white. He doesn’t look totally male. He is this hybrid creature.”
Created largely through improvisation, the show also incorporates video from filmmaker Andrew Schneider, who spent eight days filming the cast on the road from the Badlands to Graceland. While The TEAM has always used video in its productions, this “takes it to a whole new level,” says Chavkin. “I wanted to make something quiet and spacious. Film is a non-verbal art form in a way that theater just isn’t. I think that helped, letting the images talk.”
The treatment of travel is also dealt with creatively; in the first of two road trips, Ann rents an RV and hits the road with Brenda. This is represented by the couple jumping on a couch, mimicking Ann’s feelings of being “stuck” in her life. When Roosevelt and Presley set out together, they do so on rowing machines, indicative of a more energetic adventure.
The show, which recently toured to London, received even more laughter abroad than it did in New York. “In London, people had a lot of anxiety about not knowing who Teddy Roosevelt was,” Chavkin says. “We assured them that no Americans knew who he was.”
In addition to the critically-acclaimed performances of the actors, Chavkin hopes the audience will walk away from the show inspired with the chutzpah of Ann’s character. “We have for so long been told who the hero gets to be and it’s a white man,” she says. “The show is aimed at honoring the small hero’s journey that can live inside all of us.”
IF YOU GO:
Walker Art Center
Jan. 7 – Jan. 9
$25; $20 Thursday