Prior to the start of RoosevElvis at the Walker Art Center’s McGuire Theater on Thursday night, the TEAM’s artistic director Rachel Chavkin stepped onstage and explained that the Brooklyn-based company’s mission is to create shows that illuminate “what it means to live in America today.” Okay, then.
RoosevElvis, however, proceeded to do precisely that: to tell a particularly American story with profound empathy and specificity, wrapping it in a duologue featuring two iconic American characters. That’s right, it’s Teddy and Presley.
The show opens with the 26th President (Kristen Sieh) and the god of Graceland (the aptly-surnamed performer Libby King) sitting in director’s chairs introducing themselves and their accomplishments. Elvis, a gifted singer from humble origins, seems a bit cowed by the almost maniacally driven Roosevelt, son of American gentry.
Having met the show’s title characters, we watch Sieh and King transform into, respectively, Brenda and Ann — a taxidermist and a meat-maker who have a weekend fling in Ann’s South Dakota hometown.
That connection haunts Ann, who’s also haunted by the voice of Elvis Presley. He’s always in her head; and so, eventually, is his hero, TR. Ultimately, the three of them (or one, or four, depending on how you’re counting) set out on the great American road trip: a pilgrimage to Graceland.
A lot of this is played for silly fun, with the two performers demonstrating a charming rapport as both Brenda/Ann and Teddy/Elvis. The show also, however, achieves great poignance as it zeroes in on Ann’s struggle for the courage to embrace her queer identity. “America is out,” sighs an impatient, unapologetic Brenda. Well, yes — but certain meat-processing plants in South Dakota, maybe not so much.
What makes this show work so well is not just the strong writing and compelling performances from moment to moment, but the way the show sustains its telescoping conceit with careful attention to detail and character — so that even after a series of absurd tableaux involving the historical duo, RoosevElvis catches a thread to bring us right back to Ann without missing a beat, and we’re right there with her in the final stages of her journey.
To help instill a sense of place, the show — created by the performers with director Chavkin and associate director Jake Margolin — makes use of television monitors and video projections to show the performers, in character, actually visiting the locations in question. Andrew Schneider’s precisely-timed video design, which also includes iconic clips from Thelma & Louise, reinforces the sense that this story is being remembered, tumbling over and over in Ann’s troubled mind.
The set and sound design — by Nick Vaughan and Matt Hubbs, respectively — are also clever and effective without being ostentatious. Rarely in the Out There series has the fourth wall been so gently broken.
This the first of four shows in this year’s Out There, an adventurous series that annually unfolds over the course of January. RoosevElvis will leave the building after just two more performances, and if there’s any way you can get to the Walker to see this hugely entertaining and deeply satisfying piece, I urge you to do so.
To the TEAM, I can only say: Thank you. Thank you very much.