REVIEW: "Puffs, or Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic and Magic" Alchemy
“…This is pure, theatrical gold.”
“Puffs, or Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic and Magic,” an off-Broadway fast-paced romp written by Matt Cox, with original music composed by Brian Hoes, is currently being conjured up at STAGEStheatre in Fullerton by Alchemy Theatre Company through September 1st, finally giving the Hufflepuffs their indulgence after their cold-shoulder shrift in the series. Going to wizarding school is hard, even when you’re not the Boy Everything Happens To.
So what was happening while young wizard Harry Potter and his friends were honing their skills at Hogwarts? The school was full of young sorcerers and aspiring witchy women…what about all those less postulant wizards and witches who would scarcely amount to much, as Potter struggled against the dark Lord Voldemort? Puffs reveals all this with much mirth, hilarious heartfelt parody, some high decibel screaming, and even a decent amount of swearing.
These wizards in training dared not speak the evil one’s name, calling him Mister Voldy with fear and trembling (and just a bit of derision), but neither Voldemort nor Harry is at the center of this rollicking adventure. In fact, none of the cool kids are. Instead of the brave ones, the brainy ones or the nasty, good-looking rich ones, this show embraces the geeks and nerds the sorting hat assigns to the house they call Puff.
In the Harry Potter cosmos, Hufflepuffs are members of the least consequential house, the biggest losers at the school, the rank-and-file—or, as one character puts it, “We’re like ‘The Mighty Ducks’ of wizards. No! ‘The Mighty Ducks 2’ of wizards.” Matt Cox’s amiably frenzied fan fiction embeds itself at an unnamed Hogwarts, but this time chiefly focusing on 11-year old Wayne (Kyle Slayton), an impressionable nobody from New Mexico whose parents died in a tragic chocolate-frog accident.
Upon arrival at the notable school of magic and magic, he also gets sorted into the Puff house, and bonds with a group of well meaning, loyal pal rejects — counterculture witch Megan (Chelsea Caracoza), an angry young woman with angrier eye makeup and an emo obsession, and Oliver (Eric Modyman), a Muggle math prodigy, which is really completely useless at the school. Over the next seven years, they will try to learn about magic (hard), herbology (awesome!), badgers (weird), try not to have their lives ruined by their four-eyed nemesis, and try not to get hurt in what is actually a very dangerous place for unsupervised children. Sometimes they will succeed. Sometimes not.
To say the show is a hoot is a big understatement. It’s not only clever, but hysterically funny. The pacing, courtesy of Director Jeff Lowe, is frantic, the acting over the top, and the audience, mostly young adults reared on the books, nearly weeps with joy as each new in-joke whizzes past. So, if you’re not familiar with the JK Rowling phenomenon, I dare say you won’t get some of the puns or understand what the fuss is all about. The whole thing may just appear to be nonsense. But for the rest of us – this is pure, theatrical gold.
This alternate parallel Potter world has also garnered quite a cult following over the years, a la The Rocky Horror Show. And, like its forebearer, many times the audience is dappled with black robes, ties, wands and hats. That, in itself, is a show in itself.
Any single, well-placed word – and I assure you there are many – generates ripples of laughter from those mesmerized fans who understand every Potter nuance and reference. “We are staring at a lake. Just…staring at a lake. Sorry, this was more of a thing for Harry.”
The ensemble company of actors were brilliant, with eminent achievement by all. Brian Pirnat adopts a delectable faux-toffy tone as the increasingly harried Narrator while breaking down the story by books. The cast is rounded out by Brittany Cotter as Sally Perks, Lydia Myers Margitza as Susie Bones (and occasionally as Harry himself), Phil Nieto as J. Finch, Kelly Martin as Hannah, Rebecca Justino as Leanne and Joey Nestra as Ernie Mac. Audience members with sharp memories will recall that Hannah, Ernie and Finch were Hufflepuff friends in the original series.
Among all that, one of the finest moments was an unscripted one, as four members of the troupe succumbed to a fit of suppressed giggles. You see, it’s a show like that – and it’s the better for it.
Although some of the jokes will be lost on those with no knowledge of the films or books, even Potter virgins will enjoy the show’s witty wordplay and well-executed physical comedy. At times, the mile a minute pacing is so frenetic that the jokes need more time to process, but every one of them hits, scoring the loudest laughs for delicious subtexts, lines or visual gags that poke fun at inconsistencies in the Potter universe.
Without giving away too much, the first half of Puffs skews pretty closely to the events of the books, with tongue-in-cheek references to the movies (“Dumbledore looks different this year!”), paralleling Harry’s story in many points. Wayne’s friend, Megan, has a very interesting subplot with her mother about embracing what it means to be a Puff. There is a great moment where the trio revisits the Mirror of Erised, and one of the more interesting scenes was the Puffs conferring right before the Battle of Hogwarts, discussing whether to fight or not — probably an interesting conversation in all of the Houses at that time.
The strongest part of the play is year four — “the one where the Hufflepuffs actually mattered.” Cedric Diggory, the greatest Puff of them all, is played by Aaron Duncan-Schwartz (also playing Voldy), and absolutely steals the show.
Cedric is one of the characters best served by fanon and lore, and Mr. Duncan-Schwartz infuses him with insane charisma, teaching the others about the importance of the “house cup,” and the group’s number one aspiration: to not come in dead last, despite overwhelming odds.
The friendship between Cedric and Wayne is well-developed, leading to an explosion of feelings when Cedric dies. Much like that was a turning point for the book series, the play gets much darker after this, all while maintaining its rapid-fire humor. There’s an angsty fifth year, and a sexually awakening sixth year, featuring buddies Megan, who is actually the tough-chick outcast daughter of a longtime Voldy associate, and closet Lothario, Oliver — but still not much happening with sidelined and slightly entitled supporting character Harry, who’s played for laughs by a girl with pigtails.
As for my personal take on the show, this episodic ode to the halls of wizardry entered my pantheon list of favorite parody shows of all time. When you see a lot of theatre as a reviewer, it’s easy to sometimes become blasé by what you see, always ranking and filing and looking for that show that blows your mind in execution, concept, design or score. Alchemy Theatre's “Puffs,” however, is a show that broke through that edgy petulance in my head with an explosive, cuddly, thunder-brew of theatre that stands up and demands that you take notice.
Director Lowe, along with Choreographer Aidan Daguro, Stage Manager Kelsey Somerville and Assistant SM Ashley Jones, coordinates and actor-wrangles this compelling 11-strong cast as they bring this award-winning show to fulfilling jollity. Jeff Lowe’s directorial stylings, in concert with Matt Cox’s breathless pace, command of satire and improvised mania seem to go together much like Lennon and McCartney.
James Lowe’s Set Design, Courtney Duncan-Schwartz’ Costumes and Kelsey Somerville’s Prop Designs have a similarly makeshift feel, giving the sense that everything is happening on the fly. Costume changes are lightning fast, allowing the players to create a whole world of kooky characters, from a mumbling potions master to a squeaky house elf.
The show is also Produced, Audio Designed and Fight Choreographed by Jeff Lowe; Season Producers are Gail and Gerard Forster. Ms. Somerville is also Assistant Director and Production Manager, and Lighting Design is by Melissa Skau. Parody songs are provided by “So Rad,” and can be found at www.sorad90sband.com.
“Puffs, or Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic and Magic,” will be playing at STAGEStheatre for yet another three weeks, closing the run on the September 1st performance. The script is pure, honest, and delivers an incredible message about how everyone has a little Puff in them somewhere.
All Sunday shows are for young wizards and witches, meaning, all the curse words are excluded! Also, arrive an hour early to make your own house flags! The 4pm performance on August 17 will be a Relaxed Performance for members, family, and friends of the spectrum community.
For younger Potter-philiacs eager to revisit the world of all things Harry, that should be enticement enough to come see this amazing production. For more information please visit: http://www.alchemytheatre.com/relaxed-performance.html This show is Very Highly Recommended!
The Show Report