Laughing through the raindrops

A fun, hilarious debut for local improv comedy troupe

Cousin Cephus’ Improv Project takes a bow at Chico Women’s Club.

Cousin Cephus’ Improv Project takes a bow at Chico Women’s Club.

photo by Elizabeth Graham

Cousin Cephus’ Improv Project, Sunday, Oct. 16, Chico Women’s Club.

Quite frankly, I wasn’t in a comedy mood on Sunday as I cursed my recently deceased automobile while riding my bicycle across town through the rain-lashed streets to catch the premiere performance of Cousin Cephus’ Improv Project at the Chico Women’s Club. But I held to my inner faith that comedy is exactly what you need when you are feeling least receptive to it.

The sound of cheerful, anticipatory voices emanating from backstage as I locked my bike to the guardrail, and a friendly greeting as I entered the familiar hall with its raised stage, red velvet curtains and hardwood floor lined with rows of folding chairs began to lift my mood even as I shed my rain slicker. Settling into my seat after contributing to the Women’s Club scholarship fund for students studying art at Butte College by purchasing a Sierra Nevada Oktoberfest beer, I watched the crowd grow to a respectable size as the clock ticked away and the technical difficulties of getting the late-arriving sound man’s gear functioning properly delayed the beginning of the show by about 40 minutes.

But finally, the show’s producer, Elizabeth Graham, took a distortion-plagued microphone and introduced the troupe—the members obviously keyed up to begin unleashing their improvisational skills. Jason Allen, dapper in Lincoln-esque beard, and clad in black slacks and shirt with blue striped tie, explained the group’s mission to explore many improvised comedic scenarios with the aid of audience suggestions to generate unanticipated character quirks.

For the first “game,” the basis was “Weird Newscasters,” with the audience assigning each a personality type. So, anchorman Hibiscus Jones (Chaz Kelly) was directed to act like an “angry school bus driver”; the audience assigned “overzealous confetti sales person” to street reporter Jemma Beam (Annie Fischer); “former whale trainer” to sports reporter Brad Spitz (Drew McGillicuddy), and “country singer” to co-anchor Pearl Haggard (Eve Hamilton). The comics got solo spots to play off their quirks while simultaneously interacting in their newscaster roles, and the result was a surreal comedic swirl that kept the audience laughing for the duration of the piece.

All in all, the troupe presented 14 sketches in the nearly two-hour show. Because only the most basic elements were preconceived, with the performers depending on the audience—and in several instances phrases randomly inserted from the game Cards Against Humanity—to fill out or alter the basic scenario, the comedians maintained a high level of spontaneous creativity that required an amazing combination of performance bravado and quick thinking. This was enhanced by the participation of a very enthusiastic and appreciative audience that cheered on even the roughest-going pieces, such as Nick Stiles’ attempt at creating a spontaneous song about irritable bowel syndrome sung to the tune of Wham!’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.”

For me, a highlight of the show was the press conference by a man (Kelly) who, as randomly suggested, “fat-shamed a baby.” The skit included questions from the audience such as, “How do you justify criticizing anyone for a problem you have yourself?” In another favorite, Fischer portrayed a dating-game contestant quizzing a prospective date from among a “muscle head” (Stiles), “Kurt Russell’s stunt double” (McGillicuddy) and an Amish man (Allen). Each skit built on its premise to increasingly absurdist heights, and by the end of the show the rain had dissipated and I rode home with a smile on my face, still not knowing of caring who Cousin Cephus is.