CAMBRIDGE — There may be something particularly American in the peculiar feat of becoming so ubiquitously known that you disappear. Take Elvis Presley. It seems natural that fact and fiction should intertwine in the tall tales we tell about, say, George Washington. But to disappear into myth in the age of mass media — to, in fact, use the magnifying power of newspapers, radio, television, and film to carve out an edifice that entirely obscures the person behind it — is something else entirely.
One of the myths about Elvis, encouraged by his manager Colonel Tom Parker, was that he collected teddy bears — those squishy totems of childhood ironically named for avid hunter Theodore Roosevelt. After returning home from military service overseas, Elvis had to decline a press request to be photographed with a teddy bear, according to James L. Dickerson’s biography of Parker.
“RoosevElvis,” the inventive show by Brooklyn-based troupe The TEAM now at American Repertory Theater’s Oberon club-theater, plays around with inherited notions about Elvis and Roosevelt. These myth-making, manly men are juxtaposed in a serio-comic historical fantasia postulating a road trip from Mount Rushmore to Graceland, with some “Thelma & Louise” thrown in — as imagined/hallucinated by a South Dakotan meat plant worker named Ann.
This devised piece, directed by Rachel Chavkin (“Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812”), self-consciously piles on layers of storytelling artifice, at times simulating the soundstage of a film studio and periodically moving the action to pre-filmed interludes (video design is by Andrew Schneider).
The result is funny, thoughtful, and sometimes affecting. Though the thematic concerns offer discussion fodder, the excellent performances of actors Libby King and Kristen Sieh, and Chavkin’s clever direction, carry the day.
The setup is an Internet-facilitated date between Ann (King), whose workaday drudgery at the plant is glimpsed in a video sequence, and Brenda (Sieh), who’s in town for a taxidermy conference. Ann draws strength from an imagined relationship with Elvis, and when the date goes sour, she’s visited by Roosevelt, who embodies some of Brenda’s characteristics.
Elvis and Roosevelt are represented here not as people but as cultural avatars, existing only in relationship to their fans, who both borrow and project upon them assorted attributes and attitudes.
King plays Ann, and, later, Elvis, as a likable sad sack, stuck in neutral and perhaps unsure of her gender/sexual identity. Sieh’s Brenda is smart and cold, but most of her stage time is spent wearing the “side whiskers” and fringed cowboy vest of the ex-president. (She doubles as costume designer.)
Sieh plays Teddy as a hilariously chirpy, overachieving rich kid who will leave no hill unclimbed and no animal unshot in his urge to prove his worthiness. When Elvis starts to recite Roosevelt’s quote about “the man who is actually in the arena,” Teddy proudly takes over, and stirring music rises as he reaches his oratorical climax. “What a great quote!” he exclaims, admiring his achievement for an extra moment. Sieh’s gleefully showy performance, including a series of dances, is full of energy and invention, even if the character’s underlying psychology is indicated rather heavy-handedly.
“RoosevElvis” aims to playfully reclaim elements of American myth and masculinity. But it’s more like fan fiction (make that, fan historical fiction) for history and pop culture nerds — Teddy Roosevelt donning boxing gloves to obsessively punch at projected images of buffalo, Elvis Presley karate-chopping pizza boxes in half.
As expected with a multimedia piece of devised theater, written by its actors, director, and design team, this show does pack in a few digressions. But its composition is notably coherent for a piece of this type, with textural cues that converse with each other to create a subtle poetry.
The core of the piece is a remarkable dance by Sieh, a sublime embodiment of the play’s concerns with gender fluidity. In Roosevelt garb, she performs graceful ballet moves interspersed with muscle-flexing. A full portrait of American masculinity, “RoosevElvis” suggests, cannot be etched in stone.
Created by Rachel Chavkin, Libby King, Jake Margolin, and Kristen Sieh with Matt Hubbs, Andrew Schneider, and Nick Vaughan. Directed by Chavkin. Presented by American Repertory Theater. At Oberon, Cambridge, through May 29. Tickets: from $25, 617-547-8300, www.americanrepertorytheater.orgJeremy D. Goodwin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @jeremydgoodwin.