'RoosevElvis' At Oberon — Mr. President, Meet Mr. Presley. Or Is It Ms. Presley?

Kristen Sieh and Libby King in "RoosevElvis" at Oberon. (Courtesy Evgenia Eliseeva/A.R.T.)
Kristen Sieh and Libby King in "RoosevElvis" at Oberon. (Courtesy Evgenia Eliseeva/A.R.T.)

We’re never quite sure whether Ann (Libby King) — the main character in the TEAM’s strange, but charming and highly likable “RoosevElvis,” at Oberon through May 29 — has multiple personalities, or whether she’s been possessed by the spirit of Elvis Presley. Either way, the King is a constant companion to Ann, someone with whom she frequently enjoys conversations. Maybe Ann just has a really vivid imagination to go along with her deep, unfulfilled need for companionship.

What's also left unclear is whether Ann is transgender, a lesbian or a representative of some other tribe within the LGBTQIA community. Maybe she's "None of the Above," or maybe it simply doesn't matter. What we do know is that she’s had a disastrous weekend-long date with Brenda (Kristen Sieh), a fearless go-getter who was attracted to Ann thanks to an energetic and adventuresome quote included in her online profile. As applied to Ann, though, the sentiment is tantamount to false advertising.

Letting go of gender preconceptions, it's plain to see that Ann is, in some ways, a typical guy. A little heavyset, she drags herself home after work, a six-pack of beer in hand. Her place is modest, functional and comfortable enough; it's the sort of bachelor pad that includes a solitary houseplant, but Ann is the sort of bachelor who uses the plant as a hat rack. Watching her, you can't help wanting to offer her encouragement, something along the lines of, "Dude, we've all been there."

Ann’s life is a grinding treadmill of monotonous hours at work cycling into empty nights at home and then back again. She’s never flown on an airplane, nor ventured far from her South Dakota hometown — though she has been to Mount Rushmore, which she enjoys visiting while stoned. No wonder she's thrilled when the beautiful, vibrant Brenda enters her life like a bright spark of vitality. But Ann has almost literally no idea what to do with this new person in her life; Ann’s idea of a grand weekend adventure is to rent an RV and take Brenda on a quick road trip, ranging across stretches of badlands and checking out rural general stores. It’s a short expedition, but it’s enough for Brenda to make her mind up.

“You’re remarkably unbrave,” she tells Ann, not long after the two share a meal at a roadside diner, where Ann is uncomfortable with Brenda’s unselfconscious talk about being gay.

Rejected (and dejected), Ann returns to her solitary life, with only imaginary Elvis for company. Then Teddy Roosevelt (Sieh, in a dual role) arrives, bursting onto the scene with a cry of, “I am your hero’s hero!” Teddy coaxes Ann’s inner Elvis (King) out into the world at large, and the two take a road trip of their own, heading to Graceland. This time there’s no RV involved. Instead, they take a muscular little sports car.

It’s something of an obvious metaphor — the road of life, the sort of vehicle you use to traverse it — but it works. If Ann’s is a dingy stripe of maleness, then the personae that take Ann over are ebullient, unhesitating, and larger than the meager life she's lived so far. Elvis and Roosevelt (or, at least, the versions of them that live in Ann's mind) get to know each other in a way that parallels Ann and Brenda's weekend, but things go much better this time, culminating in that pinnacle of modern male bonding, the bromance.

Elvis and Roosevelt stand at the core of the play, but around them crackles a nimbus of larger cultural issues. Everything from white/male/moneyed privilege to a deeply rooted fear of feminism is called out, if only in passing. Meantime, the play counterbalances the question of just where on the male spectrum Ann might like to fall by illustrating for the audience matching anxieties about her place on the female spectrum. The cult classic "Thelma & Louise" — yet another iconic pair — serves as a touchstone throughout the show's 90-minute running time, and at one point the actors take the time and effort to introduce a couple of new characters, specifically, two waitresses at a truck stop. The waitresses only have a couple of lines, and their brief appearance is not repeated, but they're a memorable duo. They wear pink uniforms, but also the hair and whiskers of the two leading male characters. They're deliberately given the look of women in male drag who then pull on a second disguise as women. It's a loaded visual gag you can spend hours unpacking.

Libby King in a scene from "RoosevElvis" at Oberon. (Courtesy Evgenia Eliseeva/A.R.T.)
Libby King in a scene from "RoosevElvis" at Oberon. (Courtesy Evgenia Eliseeva/A.R.T.)

Why Elvis and Roosevelt? The website for the TEAM, the Brooklyn-based theater group that’s developed “RoosevElvis” and brought it to the A.R.T.’s second stage, Oberon, calls the play “a new work about gender, appetite, and the multitudes we contain,” and that’s a good précis. The show is all that, plus it’s a straight-ahead, full-tilt voyage through popular images of man- (and woman-) hood that’s composed of mixed media, being part live performance and part video footage, with a little bit of hilariously amateur dance recital thrown in.

Whether clustered around a campfire, roasting a hot dog on a fork, or acting out their respective athletic interests (boxing for Roosevelt; karate for Elvis), the two historical figures present widely different takes on masculinity. Roosevelt is the icon of the traditional male leader, with his unstoppable energy, broad curiosity and scrupulous evenhandedness. Elvis is the scandalously pelvis-swiveling singer who was initially dismissed as a "freak" but forged his own brand of charismatic male intensity. Ann holds the two in her head simultaneously, as if weighing their relative merits and looking for a healthy synthesis. Maybe Ann's not "unbrave," after all. Maybe she just doesn't know yet who she is.

“RoosevElvis” continues at Oberon through May 29. For tickets and more information, visit their website.

Kilian Melloy Theater Critic
Kilian Melloy is a contributor to WBUR's The ARTery.



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