A Date With Elvis | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader

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A Date With Elvis


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Off Bowery Theater

at Club Dreamerz

Even when Elvis was alive, he seemed funny to me. He was everything a good middle-class boy shouldn't want to be. He was campy, kitsch, vulgar, and his home, decorated in K-mart gaudiness, was a shrine to lower-middle-class aesthetics.

After his death he became Saint Elvis of the Tabloids, the holy, blissful martyr for America's only state-sponsored religion--consumerism. Black velvet paintings of Elvis were sold alongside equally garish paintings of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the pope. Elvis seemed an inexhaustible source for parody and satire. He became a regular feature in tabloid headlines and Bob Greene columns. The bottom really fell out of the Elvis-parody market when David Wolper had a couple hundred Elvis impersonators performing simultaneously at the hyper-kitsch 1986 birthday celebration for the Statue of Liberty.

Going into A Date With Elvis, I knew no comedy about Elvis could ever equal the vulgarity of that event. As it turned out, A Date With Elvis was much better than I expected, though not without its flaws.

The second production by the fledgling Off Bowery Theater, A Date With Elvis is the brainchild of writer and actor Eric Anderson. The Off Bowery Theater has created comedy that is far less polished, far more rebellious and experimental than any comedians hoping for a shot at Saturday Night Live would allow themselves to be.

They perform on a budget shorter than a shoestring (theater for a gentler and kinda broke nation), which allows them to charge the almost unheard-of ticket price of $3. And the plot of their play doesn't seem to be nearly as important as parodying the very process of telling the story. Make no mistake: this is definitely a comedy with postmodern pretensions. In fact, constantly calling attention to itself as the show is self-referential to a fault, a play whose characters are just actors. (It's not like we hadn't noticed. After all, the show is performed on a bare-bones set in a virtually unheated theater on the second floor of a postpunk bar on Milwaukee Avenue.)

A Date With Elvis begins with an artless and obvious parody of improvisation, in which the three actors onstage break all the rules. They negate each other's premises, disagree, bicker, point out when someone hasn't been listening, and in general create a scene full of injokes about improvisation. ("OK, Bill, here we are in Spain, what's on TV?" "My name's not Bill; I'm Shorty. We're not in Spain and there's no TV.") Only Eric Anderson, in his role as the increasingly nervous man literally in the TV set, was able to wring laughs from a not-so-new shtick.

Thankfully, this first bit passes quickly, and before long the show is off and running, or rather, the show is off and wandering. The story that unfolds is vaguely about a man named Shorty who lives with (and might be married to) a woman with three personalities (one modeled on Judy Holliday, another on Barbara Stanwyck, the third on Priscilla Presley), who is in love with a man who might be the reincarnation of Elvis. Elvis in turn has a friend from Memphis named Insane, who, it turns out, knew Shorty years before and might even have killed his twin brother.

But of course the show's aimless, highly digressive story isn't really important to the play except to create a framework within which Anderson and the rest of the Off Bowery Theater can crack a few jokes, make a few puns, set up a few visual jokes, and generally make fun of the very idea of trying to tell a story. This technique works well for a while--the middle half hour of the show is by far the best of the evening--before the whole thing falls apart.

In the end, anarchy prevails, and the last 15 minutes of the show decay into complete, mind-numbing chaos. We are subjected to a series of pointless (and not very funny) reversals and revelations, after which the characters dutifully kill each other off with the sort of vengeance only a writer desperate to tie up loose plot lines could muster. This ending isn't even remotely funny and it's hard to imagine one less satisfying, except, maybe, having all the characters hit by a car.

Of the cast of five, Cheryl Anderson really shines. She switches personas--from Holliday to Stanwyck to Priscilla--with breathtaking facility. Another standout, Joel Sanchez, makes for a most unlikely Elvis. Short and barrel chested, Sanchez in no way looks, acts, or moves like Elvis. Still, there is something oddly Elvis-like in his gentlemanly way of speaking, something reminiscent of the watered-down Elvis in all those movies. His imitation may well be the most understated in the world, but in an age when everyone does awful, overdone imitations of Elvis, an underplayed impersonation is a relief.

Eric Anderson, as Insane, has his moments, although I wish he'd worked a little harder on the script, especially that silly ending.

Still, more often than not this show's interesting and even funny, in a vulgar, anarchistic, everything-but-the-kitchen-sink kind of way. There are worse ways to spend $3.

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