A staple of the comedy scene on Grounds, Amuse Bouche held their second improv show of the semester Thursday night at John W. Warner Hall. With nothing but comedic instincts, quick thinking and bursts of audience laughter to propel them, the 10-member ensemble delivered an impressive performance.
The student group originated in 2007 with a focus on long-form improvised sketches. Thursday's showing, branded "A Nightmare on 14th Street," opened with a teaser video that previewed the Halloween theme of the first act.
The performers began by asking the audience for any spooky season prompts to kick off the event. Hence, the word “pumpkin” spurred cast members into bumbling around with oversized pumpkins on their heads. Within minutes, the scene took shape as a popular restaurant serving gourmet dirt to patrons, including, naturally, a French food critic seeking a ten-course “dirt buffet.”
The rules of the Spokane form, as it’s known in the improv community, don’t restrict performers to the audience-provided topic — instead, performers swap in every few minutes to help branch out the story into multiple subplots, returning to the source scene as an occasional home base.
Claire Szeptycki, Amuse Bouche performer and fourth-year College student, said throwing out new ideas is a crucial part of keeping the show going — and the toughest skill to pick up when she joined the crew last year.
“It gets a lot less scary with practice, but there's a lot of personal choices involved,” Szeptycki said. “You have to choose when you end the scene and start the scene, which is hard since you don't know exactly what's going to happen.”
Putting aside the spontaneous nature of the show’s content, the overall format itself presented an unusual twist that caught even regular attendees off guard. For the second act, Amuse Bouche opted to cut the lights and instruct the audience to close their eyes, creating a fully auditory comedy experience.
The simple restlessness that comes with keeping one’s eyes shut in a room full of strangers elicited immediate giggles — which turned to uncontrollable laughter as soon as a member blurted out an unassuming “boop boop boop!” One by one, each performer chimed in with a different sound effect or phrase one might hear in a spaceship, looping their noises in a manner reminiscent of the Potter Puppet Pals.
It was the highlight of the night, and an exemplar of what University alum and Saturday Night Live star Tina Fey deems the first rule of improvisation — to embrace any premise presenting itself, no matter how outlandish.
Indeed, one of the joys of attending "A Nightmare on 14th Street" was seeing performers interpret their teammates’ words in real time, quickly assuming the role of a six-foot-tall baby, burlap sack fashionista, talking trout or seance-obsessed software engineer as needed. As one expects from an extemporaneous performance, Amuse Bouche is not perfect — sometimes, the jokes don’t land, or misguided skits falter until a crew member runs across the stage to signal a transition.
But the overriding takeaway of the show was the team’s upbeat spirit, which carried them through a smorgasbord of sketches for a full hour. Particularly endearing moments include over-the-top vocal impressions from Szeptycki and self-effacing admissions from Thomas Arnold, Amuse Bouche member and second-year Engineering student. In one scene where he warned his co-performers of the “nine ghostly horrors,” Arnold struggled to enumerate the made-up concept and casually concluded with “I can’t, uh…whatever,” eliciting chuckles from the audience and keeping the show lighthearted.
Poyaa Nazari, Amuse Bouch president and fourth-year College student, expressed his pride in his fellow performers — including five who joined just this semester — praising their chemistry and pacing.
“I feel very proud. I always put so much work into this group and want everyone to feel comfortable performing on stage, ‘cause it’s a lot, especially with five new members,” Nazari said. “I think what I saw tonight was a great glimpse of the future.”
Amuse Bouche is part of a vibrant circle of comedy ensembles at the University, notably including The Whethermen, Hot Kids Sketch Comedy and AJAR, a once-defunct club for improv hobbyists that was revived in 2020. More performing arts organizations on Grounds can be found at HoosInvolved, the successor website to atUVA.
Nazari said that there is a lot of mutual support within the community, giving Hot Kids a shoutout for lending him the stage lights a few yards away. He also encouraged more students to get involved in comedy on Grounds.
“There's so many funny people walking around Grounds who are a little shy about the thought of performing or might not know about these groups,” Nazari said. “Come check it out.”