29 December 2015
Spoiler Alert: Puffs, Or: Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic and Magic is a parody of Harry Potter. If you have avoided learning the major plot details of Harry Potter, congratulations, you are like a unicorn who made it to December 25 without hearing any Christmas music! Be aware that this review discusses some of those plot points.
Puffs, now playing at the People’s Improv Theatre, is a fast-paced 90-minute play, densely packed with jokes, one-liners, and references to all things Harry Potter. Featuring a cast of eleven and supported by a Kickstarter campaign which raised $2,800, the show is high-energy and a crowd-pleaser. But it shines the brightest when it departs from the obvious and derivative, and branches into original territory.
Written by Matt Cox and directed by Kristin McCarthy Parker, Puffs focuses on the lives and adventures (or lack thereof) of the Hogwarts students who were sorted into (Huffle)Puff—undoubtedly the least impressive house whose presence in the popular books is infrequent. In other words, Puffs is the story of Harry Potter from the perspective of the students who, for the most part, sit on the sidelines as they watch Harry at the center of all the action. This sentiment is perfectly captured when the Puffs are waiting for Harry to emerge from a daring rescue underneath Hogwart’s Great Lake as part of the Triwizard contest. While these exploits were described in great detail in the books from Harry’s perspective, in Puffs we see the story through the Puff students’ lens. Staring at merely the surface, a Puff student remarks, “we are just watching a lake.” The Puffs know they will never be the heroes of Hogwarts, but they consider it a victory when they don’t place last in the house cup (gleefully chanting “third or nothing!”).
The story begins with Wayne (Zac Moon), a remarkably ungifted orphan wizard who gets sorted into Puffs. He befriends the rebellious and angst-filled Megan (Julie Ann Earls), as well as Oliver (Langston Belton), a math-savant who finds that his non-magical muggle math skills are useless in the wizarding world. Once in Puffs, the trio is welcomed and embraced by the leader of the Puffs house, Cedric Diggory, played by the enthusiastic and talented Evan Maltby. Our protagonists blaze through the seven years, narrated all the while by a very funny A.J. Ditty who keeps the pace and energy of the show alive, while also contributing pithy observations and querying how to fit the increasingly lengthy Harry Potter plot into an hour and a half show.
The lingering question about a show like this is how does one write a parody of Harry Potter that hasn’t already been done? It’s not easy. The biggest flaw in the show is its overuse of references to well-known events from the books, which the Potter-friendly audience is already familiar with, but our protagonists here are not. For example, Wayne, who is earnest but fails to master even the most basic wizarding skills, has a touching moment with Cedric when Cedric (who the audience knows dies in the book) tells Wayne that he will take him under his wing and teach him everything he knows after the Triwizard Tournament. The line did receive a laugh from the audience—but the problem is Puffs leans too heavily on references similar to this. Scene after scene is laden with nostalgic lines allowing the audience to reminisce. Many of these moments, such as the Puffs getting drunk off Butterbeer, are worn and predictable. Other lines, such as Megan’s commentary that Neville Longbottom will “stay ugly forever,” presumes the audience knows the actor who played him in the movie, Matthew Lewis, had a very generous adolescence and that his aesthetic appeal was apparent by the final installment of the movies.
If the entire play had continued this way, it could easily be dismissed as one of the many overdone Harry Potter parodies in existence. However, halfway through the performance, the show begins to find its own legs as it breaks free from its reliance on reference humor. Our protagonist Wayne begins to forge his own path endearing himself to the audience through his failures and his near irrelevance. In contrast to the underdog Wayne, Madeline Bundy brilliantly plays a whiny Harry Potter who effortlessly and annoyingly succeeds at everything.
The success of Puffs comes from the character development of the three main players so by the play’s conclusion, the audience has more of an affinity for the trio’s non-adventures than Harry’s now inconsequential story. Harry Potter is fighting Lord Voldemort in the background but, really, who cares anymore. Aren’t we over him by now? The most memorable moments are those shared between these friends (e.g., a recurring awkward three-person hug; Megan and Oliver being offended by the movie Hocus Pocus; and the discovery that AOL instant messenger is a more effective form of communication than owls).
Puffs is a successful romp. It may not win the house cup, but it certainly does not come in last place. Puffs is scheduled to run at the People’s Improv Theatre through February 2016.