You enter the blackbox and choose a folding chair. The lights are up and you engage in some light pre-play chatter with your neighbors but the performers are already out, stretching and barking orders as actors and executives on a television set. Finally a significant darkness sets and the play begins to unspool, a story of a TV doctor named Sef (the brilliant and skillful Bradley Wilson ‘13) who suffers a spontaneous and severe bout of vertigo and loses his job, then his mind, and then finally his physical grounding. You feel the string of the plot taking shape in your fingers but your embroidery catches a sudden snag when one executive’s words pierce your eardrums: UNDERSTANDING IS ENTIRELY FORBIDDEN!
You have just been introduced to Roll!, an original play written, choreographed, and directed by Jeff Kuperman ‘12. The pithy prohibition above serves as the play’s mantra; it will reappear on two additional occasions, from the mouths of two additional characters. As the mantra suggests, Kuperman and his cast conspire against their audience to construct a narrative in which the plot points and characters and acting chops and structural coherence are immaterial. What Roll! seeks to impart instead is the pure beauty and sensuality of kinetic performance.
Sef embarks on two intertwined quests, one of romantic love and one of existential fulfillment. His journey takes him through a psychiatrist’s office, a burlesque bar, and a cloudy sky; more significantly, it contorts and flexes his body through acrobatic leaps, lifts, dances, dives, falls, and of course, rolls. After vertigo strikes and understanding is forbidden, Sef’s physical world becomes just as unhinged as his sanity, and every step he takes seems as if it might be his last. His ambulation leaps off the ground and stretches deeply into the third direction, and his slightest sway might spontaneously bloom into a death-defying sequence of gymnastic feats of one to six undergraduate human bodies. Those feats almost always require extreme coordination, as seen in the play’s defining, climactic gesture: the supporting actors suspend a facedown Sef in the air, their free hands flapping his oxford to produce the remarkably convincing illusion of free fall. It is difficult to encapsulate in words the distinct physical thrill and aesthetic pleasure felt watching and sharing a space with the performers. It is a potent visceral stimulation that reminds you that the body is not merely a tool to transport you to and from the library and dining hall, but rather a tight coil of muscle and nerve to be bent and stretched, to be pushed and pulled, and nearly snapped and broken.
My arsenal of metaphors fails to express the precise pleasures of Roll!, but then again, so does Kuperman’s script. For me, Kuperman the choreographer is far more interesting than Kuperman the writer, let alone Kuperman the videographer, whose projected footage provided interesting scenic element on occasion but tended to distract. (One notable exception is a scene in which a character is hit by a car: the approaching vehicle is projected onto a panel and the actor, Michael Thomas Jr. ‘12, reacts appropriately, flailing and tumbling as the headlights swell. Kuperman’s genius combination of film and physicality effectively stages an otherwise impossible event; he would do well to channel this synergy in all of his use of projection.) Sef’s admiration of a burlesque dancer with a pathological urge to cook in her sleep — plucked right from the bin of discarded Palanhiuk characters — is not only insufficiently explored and archaically chauvinistic, but it is also irrelevant. Roll! is not called Understand! for good reason, and as discussed above, Kuperman identifies the play’s strength by repeatedly denying its coherence. It is perhaps telling that the play’s most impressive moments lie in its plot’s lacunae, the spaces between scenes: the transitions, those dizzyingly quick and intricately choreographed sequences where couches are flipped over, coats are ripped off, and the students leap and twirl into and out of position. Roll! is a performance to be seen and felt and smelt, and not a play to be read or synopsized.
You leave the blackbox in the glowing aura of a body high. Your fingers flex backward secretly, your toes curl up tight in your sneakers. You feel the ends of your pedestrian self, the miniature ecstasies in the physical fulfillment of your extremities, and you imagine the magnified pleasure enjoyed over the past ninety minutes in the discrete bodies of Roll!’s rollers. Finally an enlightenment dawns, and the comprehension once forbidden is slowly internalized.
More information on Roll! can be found here: http://www.princeton.edu/arts/arts_at_princeton/theater/productions/roll/overview/