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ON CAMPUS

Roadkill Buffet

The psychic equivalent of a paper cut

By Wally Holland

The thing about improvisational comedy is that at its heart is a sort of discomfort, a significant probability that the next thing to come out of someone’s mouth is going to be horrendously unfunny. In hindsight, it is easy to point out clever things to say in a freely improvised sketch -- but it’s poor form to do so.

The great power of improv is in that moment when the next word or act is the perfect one for that instant -- when someone raises an eyebrow or bends a finger or says a single syllable and the action is whole and right. It doesn’t happen all the time, but when it does an entire evening’s improvised journey comes round to its destination. Sometimes it even happens to Roadkill Buffet.

It’s difficult to appraise improv in terms of good and bad, because the outcome of a scenario (or “format”) is rarely of great importance. Remarkably enough, reviewing an improvised performance involves looking at the ethic of the performers: did they reach for something? Did they work well together? Above all, did they let themselves be guided by the moment?

Roadkill’s show on Saturday seemed a typical one -- meaning it was enjoyable, with moments of magic. A game like “Freeze” (spontaneous, largely physical comedy in which participants rotate in and out of a “frozen” scene) served as an ideal opener, loosening up both crowd and ensemble. This is doubly important -- not only because of the performers’ need to be free of inhibitions, but because the crowd is a tremendous source of energy for the group. Like a good jazz audience, the people watching Roadkill are part of the show -- and not just overtly, but through volunteering ideas and taking part in formats.

When Roadkill’s little deviants are on, they’re dead on. A tossed-off line about imaginary furniture might have led to a run-of-the-mill scene in the hands of an uncommunicative group; but a quick thought from Jeff Klann ’01 turned the scene around entirely, and suddenly Luke Weisman G was an invisible delivery boy with an inferiority complex. The snapping of fingers from the ensemble were acknowledgement that, in an instant, something had gone quite right. To fulfill the idea’s promise, the other players would have to move with him -- and happily, they did.

It’s odd to see members of the ensemble walk to the side of the performance area shaking their heads or leaping up and down -- certainly something quite different from most scripted theater. Some people find it disconcerting to see; but that openness is integral to the show. The jesting that occurs off to the side has a conspiratorial air that lends a certain electricity to the performance.

One of the evening’s highlights was a bizarre “opera,” with the entire ensemble acting and singing (or doing something vaguely similar), and Weisman providing commentary to explain the action. This was probably the best format of the night, with each performer contributing something to the whole, to culminate in a truly silly romp around Klann’s supine form. The “singing” managed to work in four “languages,” every possible vocal range, an exciting hero, a dastardly villain, and commentary on the perils of modern technology -- all without saying a word. When the scene was finished, the entire ensemble was laughing and smiling -- a sign that they knew something had clicked.

The respective strengths of the ensemble shone through at different times. Neil Jenkins G evidently likes faux-German accents, but he manages to swing entirely into whatever character comes to hand. The verbal skills of Tanis O’Connor ’01 served her well throughout, while Klann’s complete comfort with himself physically allowed a “mannequin” skit with Jared Schiffman ’99 to work exceptionally well. Chris Connor G, who I’d never seen perform with Roadkill, brings a terrifically dry English wit to the ensemble, which stands in marked contrast to the rest of the group. Weisman’s willingness and ability to play any character in any scene served him well, since he ended up spending an insane amount of time on stage. Every member brings something different to the group, and it is a testament to their ability to work together that they manage, night in and night out, to build something interesting and enjoyable from their disparate parts.

The night’s centerpiece (by virtue of its length and epic scope) was a long sketch about toothpaste in the wild west. The group started off with a few terrifically inventive segments (including a missive from Connor on transportation in the future and Schiffman’s brief mention of horses with udders, which came to be the focal point of the entire sketch), and the scene seemed to flow quite well. The point of the scene (a grudge about toothpaste) was all but forgotten by most of the ensemble, and it became more and more difficult to work it back into the sketch -- but it wasn’t that important.

Roadkill’s fundamental rule is to accept whatever is tossed at them, by the audience or by their fellow performers. As the sketch piled up one ridiculous plot point after another, there was a sense that in the end everything would end up crashing happily to the ground, probably with a gunfight (which Weisman avoided by running away, though I got the sense that it was the entire sketch he was running away from). The group got to work with a complex format, building what amounted to a real story from nothing, and they made the thing funny, to boot.

All things considered, it was a fine show. The tension that is integral to a good performance was released in an hour and a half of misbehavior and mayhem (and, given the last couple of Roadkill shows I’ve seen, surprisingly few sexual innuendoes). If you haven’t been to a show lately, forget what you think you know about comedy and go be a part of a Roadkill performance. What they do is remarkable -- and remarkably, they do it quite well.