Part parody, part love letter in new work at Jacob's Pillow's Doris Duke Theatre
(Trump isn't, in fact, directly introduced into "Elvis Everywhere," but it's hard not to sense him lurking ominously in the wings behind Nixon.)
Various representations of the iconic superstar also known as "The King" do saturate the hour-long work, mirroring the ways in which Presley became such a ubiquitously American representation of celebrity long before the social media-crazed world of today. In addition to projected images of Presley — photographs, documentary, interview, movie, and performance footage loom large on the backdrop — at various times the performers themselves portray Elvis. Woven amongst the wild potpourri of vignettes that make up this eclectic, occasionally unwieldy piece is a faint outline of Presley's life. The score includes several iconic recordings, as well as a few covers and originals by other musicians.
Part parody and, as Pillow director Pamela Tatge said in her curtain speech, part love letter, onscreen we see the young Elvis, a baby-faced innocent, while onstage he's portrayed as a puppet strung up to comically giant strings manipulated by his slick manager. Then there's the gorgeous burgeoning star as a still young but maybe not so innocent army recruit; accordingly, the ensemble performs a boisterous dance full of march-like phrasing and springy leaps. Their militantly upright torsos and behaving hips occasionally break formation to naughtily shimmy and pulse before snapping to attention again.
There's Elvis as lover — with, presumably, Priscilla — portrayed by Matt Reeves and Colette Krogol in two duets. The first — performed, natch, to "Love Me Tender" — is lovely, suffused with the rush of new passion, Reeves now catching Krogol effortlessly up in big, soft lifts, now being upheld by Krogol. In the later duet, it seems the honeymoon is over. As a cartoon sun sets behind them, their still-intimate partnering is peppered with a bitterly slicing arm here, an angrily grabbing hand there.
At the beginning of the work, the lights come up to unveil a veritable showroom of shiny Elvises, versions of the later model, complete with the poufed helmet of hair, giant shades, neck scarf and sparkling, vee-necked, bell-bottomed bodysuit. Each stands on his/her own reflective circle, the better to bask in his/her glittering glory.
A hint of melancholy laps even at many of the overtly comic scenes so it's clear Dendy and Donovan aren't out to make cruel fun of Presley. Poignantly, they present him as just a man, one who fell in and out of love, yes, one who soared to bewildering heights of fame, but who also, in full public view, stumbled and crumbled in his lifestyle's excess. Yes, many put him on a pedestal, but, we're reminded tragicomically at the end, he died on the layperson's throne (Presley apparently suffered a massive heart attack while sitting on the toilet).
And so parody bleeds into its darker side of satire, and finally, as Tatge also noted, political commentary. In a funny/chilling scene, a gas mask-wearing Dendy himself makes a cameo, portraying former US Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld. While a tape of Rumsfeld recounting the time he met Presley plays over the speakers, Dendy, costumed in a military uniform, sits in a chair and exaggeratedly mimes laughter, or flamboyantly flings his arms about, his fingers gesticulating greedily. Another time, we see footage of Nixon mocking the media, and hear audio about Vietnam war protests; Chris Bell performs an extraordinary, heartbreaking, ultimately hopeless solo to the Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds' cover of "In the Ghetto." At one point, the ensemble, now wearing bright wigs and clad in giddily-hued costumes, move in slo-mo, their formerly happy-to-lucky expressions now grotesquely silent screams.
In those moments, "Elvis Everywhere" snaps out of sight-gag mode and into horror show territory. Though the lights come up and we all clap and cheer the terrific dancers and directors, once back in the world confusion between reality and fantasy hovers as always. But, but, but, and here's the beauty of the thing: artists like Dendy and Donovan, who hold up multi-faceted mirrors of the world in works like "Elvis Everywhere," with their wizard-like blends of art, entertainment and searing truth, offer ways to keep on keepin' on. Without them, we may as well hunker in a bunker.
Janine Parker can be reached at email@example.com.
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