The artist's name is forgotten, as is the title of the piece he created. But the work is remembered: a series of staged, beautifully detailed photographs depicting imagined scenes from Jesus' still-pending return to Earth. It's not the scripted, approved-by-Catholics-and-Southern-Baptists version, though—no blaring trumpets, no majestic descents from poofy white clouds. Instead, Christ just shows up one day, trying—and failing—to announce his comeback via CNN. He hangs out with whores and junkies and comforts people with AIDS, an act that gets him queer-bashed to death by a gang of thugs who mistake him for being gay. The final frame read, "Jesus returned, but nobody noticed."
I thought a lot about those photos, shown about eight years ago at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, while watching the The King, which follows roughly the same theme, substituting one much-beloved deity for another: Elvis Aron Presley. You don't expect a play centering on Elvis to explore probing theological questions, certainly not this one, at least when it begins unfolding.
Basically, Elvis (Frank Tryon) is thawed out at the cryogenics center where he has been kept for 25 years by Colonel Tom Parker's grandson Chet (Alex Dorman). No one, of course, believes he's really the resurrected rock & roll messiah—not anyone at Graceland, where he gets tossed out of upon returning; not the courts, who force him to use the name Aron King instead of Elvis; not daughter Lisa Marie, who issues a restraining order. He winds up living in a filthy garage in a small Mississippi town, befriended by the local folk, scarfing down junk food and enamored by the jujitsu moves in The Matrix. When he tries making a comeback, the only singing gigs he can land are on the rodeo circuit as a clown whose white jumpsuit is plastered with the sequin-studded logos of fast food chains—call him the Burger King now.
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Falling even further, he's reduced to shilling for King's Used Cars, King's Flowers, King Donuts and King Chinese Food. Confused by the freaky Elvis cult that has permeated since his supposed death—the impersonators, the sightings at 7-Eleven—he's made to live as the caricature others have sculpted from him. Pretty funny, as long as this guy who calls himself Elvis stays outside the margins. But when DNA tests prove he's the real King, that's when things get complicated, especially for Vic Vegas (Joe Hufferd), a sleazeball who has made a career exploiting people's beliefs as host of his own Elvis-sightings TV show.
Vegas is obviously the archetype here for any preacher who has ever claimed to speak for Jesus, and this is where The King really sparkles, raising such questions as: What would happen if Elvis/Jesus did return but didn't nicely fit into that cramped little prison his followers built around him? What if he were as fallible and human as the rest of us? It's essentially the same point raised by the controversy over the film The Last Temptation of Christ when it came out in 1988: What happens when the legend—be it Jesus, Jim Morrison, Joe Hill or Tupac Shakur—becomes more powerful than the man? Or in the case of The King, when Elvis the Man is confronted with Elvis the God? That's where The King ultimately turns tragic.
You can't leave the theater without this gnawing feeling that if Elvis—or Jesus—ever did come back, everything would be played out just as writer/director Brian Newell scripted it. The King works because it's all so damned, depressingly true.
The King at Stages Theatre, 400 E. Commonwealth Ave., Fullerton, (714) 525-4484. Fri.-Sat., 8 p.m.; Sun., 5 p.m. Through Aug. 3. $15.