ELVIS: I always saw my life like it was a movie. Ever since I was a little kid.
Ever imagined your life as a movie? Not the movie of your life, all carefully edited highlights and an actor with much better hair in the lead role. Just day-to-day life seen through celluloid: getting ready in the morning, heading to work, going out for drinks. The banality of routine made exciting through the frame of Hollywood.
It seems only right that The TEAM, a company at once in love with and critical of Americana, should go to the movies. The outlines of Hollywood, so often overlapping with those of the American Dream, were there in Mission Drift, but RoosevElvis takes on that most quintessentially American of film genres: the road trip. Except this road trip is one – as per the title – with Elvis Presley and Teddy Roosevelt: two very different American heroes and two very different versions of masculinity.
I mention Mission Drift because it’s hard not to watch RoosevElvis through the remembered lens of that earlier show. Even just thinking about that production exploding across the stage of (the venue formerly known as) the Shed, all sexy chaos and soul-shattering songs, makes my heart beat a little faster. It was a show that locked horns with the American Dream and the history of capitalism by embracing the messiness, the unruliness, the unencompassable hugeness of its subject matter. It was all excess, bursting at the seams with images and ideas, yet the unrestrained aesthetic felt completely apt.
RoosevElvis has just as much going on, but the mash-up is slightly less convincing. It’s grappling with a hell of a lot: gender, sexuality, images of American masculinity, heroes and icons, the mythology of the roadtrip, the intoxication of adventure. As in Mission Drift, there are two main strands: the struggle undertaken by Ann, a lonely and lost 35-year-old in a dead-end job at a meat-processing plant, to find herself on the road to Graceland; and a hallucinatory meeting between Elvis (Ann’s hero) and Roosevelt (Elvis’s own hero in turn). And it’s all performed by two women – The TEAM’s fantastic Libby King and Kristen Sieh – in glorious, pointedly fake drag.
When we first meet Ann, she’s hooking up with Brenda, a visiting taxidermist she met on the internet. Brenda is everything Ann isn’t: self-assured, wisecracking, thirsty for adventure. As she puts it during their three days together, the reserved Elvis fan is “remarkably unbrave”. (That particular choice of words – “unbrave”, not “cowardly” – lands with a surprisingly devastating weight.) As her time with Brenda comes to an abrupt end and she struggles again with her identity, Ann conjures the spirits of Elvis and Roosevelt and the three of them hit the road, making a meandering pilgrimage to Graceland.
This all takes place within a makeshift film set, surrounded by screens playing snippets of Thelma and Louise and a series of movie-like on-location scenes, gorgeously filmed by Andrew Schneider. There’s more than a hint of The Wooster Group to this ubiquitous presence of televisual media, as movies become absorbed into the texture of everyday life. Thelma and Louise is a thematic and aesthetic reference point throughout, in fact, its simultaneous homage to and subversion of the road trip buddy comedy providing a blueprint of sorts for The TEAM. Here, again, two women critique the centrality of very particular ideas of masculinity to the American psyche – only these two women are playing two men.
King and Sieh’s embodiment of the two famous men smashed together in the title is one of the show’s great joys. The aptly named King lends Elvis both swagger and vulnerability; he can entrance the world with a swing of his hips, but yearns for his momma’s love. Also playing Ann, King deliberately blurs the edges of the two roles and the genders they represent, the same submerged melancholy bleeding into both characters. Sieh’s riotous Roosevelt, meanwhile, is a hyperactive pastiche of rugged yet intellectual manliness, burying emotions in books and hunting trips. It’s an incredible comic turn, made all the more impressive by its contrast to the persuasive naturalism of Sieh’s performance as Brenda.
RoosevElvis is a show of fantastic moments. Roosevelt throwing ridiculous punches at projected buffalo on a screen. Roosevelt and Elvis (or “Elvees”, in Roosevelt’s Katherine Hepburn-esque accent) lounging in a motel room, the latter in a monogrammed dressing gown. A finale that flips from the laugh-out-loud to the poignant and contemplative in an instant. Between these moments, though, it often veers from the road, going off into digressions or tipping the absurdity just that bit too far. Teddy and Elvis’s little skits, while ushering in most of the laughs, rarely move the narrative forward. I begin to wonder, as other interesting fragments of ideas around privilege and legacy periodically surface, whether the piece has taken on just a little too much.
But what The TEAM are great at, as ever, is pulling apart the threads of American mythology. In the opening scene of the show, as the two icons at its heart compete for attention like movie stars at a press conference, Roosevelt launches into a segment from one of his speeches. There’s a pause. Then he says, grinning, “what a great quote”. The twenty-first-century portrait of the USA drawn by The TEAM is one of national culture as quotation and national identity as an awkward yet enduring assemblage of freighted symbols.
This all resonates, too, with the construction of personal identity – a fraught ongoing battle for Ann. Whatever the show’s stumbles, there’s something brilliant about the staging of a queer woman’s journey towards self-realisation, in the process hijacking a narrative form that is so often (as the inserted biographies of Elvis and Roosevelt – always gently subverted by the simple fact of the casting – make clear) dominated by (straight, white) men. RoosevElvis might be critical of the traditional markers of American masculinity – guns, aggression, arrogance – but it also opens up the possibility of a new sort of identity, one still connected to but not hemmed in by the long chain of past heroes.