Taxidermists sure get some weird requests. In the TEAM’S RoosevElvis, Brenda, whose profession is skinning and stuffing animal skins, admits that even she is grossed out by orders for “Capricorn” creations like pig-sharks and lamb-fish. The bizarre anecdote is just a detail in this devised piece that premiered in 2014 at The Bushwick Starr and opened PS122’s 2015 Coil festival, but serves to introduce a theme of strange and stranger hybrids. As its name suggests, RoosevElvis is also one, stitching together the bullish energy of Theodore Roosevelt and the moody narcissism of Elvis Presley. And like that pairing of opposites, the show is an unexpected, mildly disturbing mash-up of categories that tickles the fancy and challenges reason.
The piece is also the TEAM’s latest take on American mythologies in the collective psyche, after Particularly in the Heartland, Architecting and Mission Drift, which explored in turn the George W. Bush era, post-Katrina rebuilding and capitalism. In RoosevElvis, however, what seems to interest TEAM more than these men of legend is their gender, or rather the way they wore their maleness like a kind of armor. The piece deftly inflates then deflates male and female tropes of the “weaker sex” and its macho counterpart.
Kristen Sieh, whose personal fascination with Roosevelt was the impetus for the show’s creation, plays the suede-fringed politician and self-made adventurer. If at first her lithe frame seems a puny skeleton for the statesman’s grizzly bear physique, she more than makes up for weight with an exaggerated energy that keeps her leaping, bouncing and even pirouetting across the stage (her Teddy is also given to climbing mountains spontaneously to work off excess testosterone). While this still dainty version of Roosevelt bristles with confidence and vigor, Libby King’s Elvis shuffles and broods, lost somewhere between the Jailhouse Rock heartthrob and his paunchy middle-aged iteration.
Yet neither actress is meant to impersonate these American heroes – on the one hand, the 26th President of the United States, who was famous in his day for shooting African game on safari, breaking monopolies and his “big stick” foreign policy; on the other, the King, whose legend has surely outlived the real man – so much as bring them down to size. The androgynous physiques of Sieh and King may lend themselves to playing these men, but their gender humanizes these iconic males above all, and in unexpected ways. Embodied by actresses and thrown together on an imaginary road trip from Mt. Rushmore to Graceland, with its share of campfire revelations, Roosevelt and Elvis make a study in contrasting insecurities and weaknesses.
As wacky as that pairing might sound, it seems almost tame for the TEAM, whose co-writers on this show – King, Sieh, Rachel Chavkin (who also directs) and Jake Margolin – add another layer to the gender / hybrid equation through a parallel story of a meet-up between Brenda, the taxidermist, and Ann, an employee at a meat processing plant. The women have recently shared profiles on a dating site and take an impromptu camping trip to the Badlands to get to know each other better. Both women exercise typically male professions and have adopted masculine dress codes: camouflage for Brenda (Sieh), baggy surfer shorts and nondescript t-shirts for Ann (King). However, Brenda also mimics tried and true stereotypes of women in film and media, dancing and swinging her hair silhouetted against a sunset, for example, or Ann-Margret style in “Viva Las Vegas” or playing a pink uniformed, 50s era waitress in a video that loops silently on a TV screen. Like an unnatural animal hybrid, the couple she forms with Ann’s frustrated masculinity is forced and uncomfortable. Eventually it breaks up, sending Ann into the emotional tailspin that provides the impetus for the Elvis plot.
Once the “RoosevElvis” road show takes off for Graceland, however, the TEAM’s attention to gender is overshadowed by Sieh’s performance as Roosevelt. Her POTUS is a showman to the core, who risks ridiculing himself at every turn with his particular brand of braggadocio, and who casts a Mt. Rushmore sized shadow over the rocker he insists on calling “Elvees.” More amusement lies in the TEAM’s object play, where rowing machines substitute for horses on the men’s trip, and a love seat does the same for the front seat of the women’s RV. Nick Vaughan’s set is another kind of hybrid, fusing Ann’s kitchen with the cold lockers of the meat plant, a TV studio and Andrew Schneider’s video design, which provides a standard iconography of the American road: gas stations, open prairie, huge skies, and the ever unfurling median, accented by clips from “Thelma and Louise.” But these images are mere background compared to more interesting sequences of Ann pushing beef through a grinder on a real factory floor or writing her name on a wall at Graceland. Hyperrealism meets the absurd in yet another crossbreed.
Visually arresting as the most outlandish animal composite, RoosevElvis doesn’t dazzle as much with its discussion of gender, however; the types of femininity and masculinity on offer here are meant to be fluid and the images used can be pertinent, even striking, but they are mostly static, as portrayed in the filmed sequences. Despite the gender-blind casting, the TEAM lets RoosevElvis be written by those tropes rather more than it rewrites them. Except as American idols of a sort, Roosevelt and Elvis had little in common in real life, but the TEAM makes it fun to wonder how these two alpha males might have been different if they had been a little more alike.