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Teddy Roosevelt and Elvis Fight Over America's Soul

Date: Oct 15, 2013

Sometimes the unused scraps of one show become the starting point of another. For the award winning, Brooklyn-based ensemble the TEAM, that's exactly what happened with RoosevElvis, now playing at The Bushwick Starr through Nov. 3. RoosevElvis (pronounced "Rose-of-Elvis") takes on two titans of American history, Teddy Roosevelt and Elvis Presley, and emerged from the research and rehearsal process for two previous TEAM shows.

When the group was creating Architecting, their 2008 exploration of Gone with the Wind, actress Kristen Sieh became obsessed with Teddy Roosevelt. "Kristen kept trying to make him into a character in that show, so he had been sitting on our shelf for a while," says TEAM director Rachel Chavkin. Meanwhile, research that went into Mission Drift, an exploration of American capitalism, led Chavkin and TEAM actress Libby King to Big Fat Elvis, an impersonator they encountered during a development period in Las Vegas.

"We started talking separately about doing a Teddy show and an Elvis show, but one evening I was talking with [celebrated performer and playwright] Taylor Mac about these ideas, and he said 'Sounds great, two women in fat suits.' Soon after that the two shows became one," Chavkin recalls. "Roosevelt and Presley are really excellent manifestations of American appetite, both splendid and awful. Elvis was known for eating a pound of bacon a day. Teddy had an appetite for imperialism. He wanted to own and control everything." Moreover, she adds, Elvis and Roosevelt both shared a strong idea of who they wanted to be in the world and built themselves into that idea.

At the heart of RoosevElvis, however, is Ann (played by King), an extremely shy worker at a meat-processing plant. A romantic weekend turned sour spurs Ann to go on a hallucinatory road trip from the badlands of South Dakota to Graceland, a pilgrimage that the TEAM made while developing the show. "Ann has these kind of alternate, divided personalities of Roosevelt and Presley," Chavkin says. "They battle over what kind of human citizen Ann should be."

While making the trek to Graceland, the TEAM enlisted video designer Andrew Schneider to create video for the show as well as a kind of director's cut of supplementary material. "There are these two waitress characters that Kristen and Libby play. We see them for four lines in the show, but there's a whole video segment that links up with them." Chavkin says. "It felt great to create discrete elements that relate to the show as a whole."

The TEAM is known for devising its shows, and they even contributed a video on devised theatre to TDF's Theatre Dictionary. "The main way we write is through improvisation," Chavkin says. "Because of the culture of our rehearsal room, the actors will just start speaking eventually, and our stage manager will transcribe." At a recent rehearsal, the group agreed that they needed to write the ending of the show the following day. "We'll each spend an hour writing a version of the end and then talk about what works and what doesn't," Chavkin explains.

Perhaps the most fascinating element of RoosevElvis, though, is how it toys with expectations. Roosevelt and Elvis could be the makings of a slapstick-y, anachronistic theatrical romp, but the TEAM takes a slyly studious approach. "When we first started talking about the show, it was a dissection of American masculinity. But by having two females play these male characters, we are blowing open the idea of a gender binary," Chavkin says. "You need space between the actor and the character. Through that misalignment, you see all these different shades that you'd miss if a man who looked like Teddy Roosevelt played Teddy Roosevelt. I think that's a huge thing for the TEAM, waking up these inherited American stories."


Eliza Bent is a writer and performer based in New York City.

Photo by Kevin Hourigan