Odd that a play so steeped in loneliness should burst with such life. The Team’s RoosevElvis, a stirring, absurd, and grandly human historical-cosplay road-trip fantasia, centers on a depressed North Dakota lesbian stuck in a go-nowhere meat-plant job. Upon cracking open a beer after work, Ann (Libby King) has taken to channeling something of the spirit of Elvis Aron Presley, a man in whose immensities she feels her own crabbed-in self stretch and flourish.
She’ll chat with Elvis, asking him about his day—he’s hung out at the apartment, eaten some Mexican food, played with eBay—and then perhaps perform as him: singing and dancing, of course, but also telling his own story in that squirrelly, nervous boy’s way of his, the one you can hear on a travesty of a record like his all-talking folly Having Fun with Elvis on Stage, where he can’t get through a sentence without collapsing into giggles whether he’s managed to find a joke or not. Since he’s Elvis, everyone laughs; since Ann is alone in her living room in her tighty-whities, our laughs don’t come so easily.
Early in the show, Ann lucks into a lulu of an Internet date with Brenda, a taxidermist citizen-of-the-world type who burns off her frequent-flyer miles to get there. The two hit it off and go as all-in as first-daters can: They decide to take a road trip to Mount Rushmore right then and there. The cracks appear between them almost immediately after, although the pair—and the audience—still enjoys some fine times together, especially in Andrew Schneider’s touching, evocative videos of the duo shopping at Wall Drug or slumping in their diner seats. Still, once Ann mentions a desire to stop at Walmart, and once Brenda asks how Ann can shove diner-grade hamburger into her system, everyone in the theater knows this relationship won’t be going much further.
Except Ann. And Elvis. And, in an imaginative coup, Theodore Roosevelt, who turns out to be to Brenda something of what Elvis is to Ann: inspiration, an ideal to strive toward, spirit animal. Much of the show (in its current, ever-evolving state) concerns a feverish make-up (and made up) trip, with Ann in her full Elvis regalia and Brenda done up as Teddy R., en route to Graceland via the Badlands—the goal being both to show Ann the country and to show Brenda that Ann isn’t truly stuck in a small-horizoned life. It’s rare for a show so sad to be so funny—so alive.
So, it’s T.R. and Elvis, two long-gone masculine ideals, larking together across America, both embodied by women. The actresses sit on the couch, which we presume has become some kind of truck; highway imagery, often beautifully shot, is projected all around them. King’s Elvis, as filtered through Ann, is laconic, a little shy, all star power ready to burst out and show everyone the he—or she—is a force to be reckoned with. Kristen Sieh’s Roosevelt, by contrast, is comparatively fey, a sprightly but whisper-thin chatterbox and pugilist so enthusiastic about this country, this culture, and his—or her—place in it that the ambitions of an Elvis look small by comparison. What is the point of hauling greatness out of yourself when the natural world and the worlds of books have so much on offer already? Roosevelt, of course, comes to think of Elvis like Brenda thinks of Ann: fearful, uninquisitive, stuck in a too-small conception of what life offers.
Of course, the duo doesn’t spend all their time hashing over what has become of American masculinity. There’s much spirited bed-jumping, dance-offs, musical performances, races on turn-of-the-last-century exercise bikes, and delicious encomiums delivered on the topics these men relish: John Muir, the beauty of the West, assassination attempts, Mama. The actresses fling themselves into these outsize performances, playing something like hyperactive folk heroes, but that’s appropriate and affecting: Elvis and T.R. have always seemed like performances of themselves, of their own manliness. Ann is sorting through selves (and imagining Brenda doing the same)—without an Ann of her own to perform, why not have a go at the men who get carved into mountains?
On opening night, the show ran 110 minutes. Given the stuffiness of The Bushwick Starr, this felt 15 too many, and some of the bed-jumping silliness of the final third felt repetitive and unrevealing. But, mostly, RoosevElvis stands as a big-hearted and affecting examination of that most American of faculties: imagining yourself as bigger, grander, and more, no matter how little you might be.