Harry Potter and the Cursed Child premieres on stage in England in July, and Warner Brothers looks to extend its cinematic success with J.K. Rowling’s franchise with a trilogy of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them films beginning in November. For fans of a certain scarred wizard who can’t wait that long, or who can’t afford to fly to London for a play, there is another delightful option to be found right now: Puffs, or: Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic and Magic. From playwright Matt Cox and Kristin McCarthy Parker, director of this past summer’s Jurassic Park parody Hold on to Your Butts, Puffs follows the members of the perennially last-place house through their years at a well-known English school of magic as they exist on the margins of, and sometimes intersect with, chosen-one Harry’s story, a bit like Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead without the existential dread.
The trio of wizards-in-training at the center of Puffs are Wayne (Zac Moon), like Harry, an orphan, and, unlike Harry, a well-meaning everyman from New Mexico; Megan (Julie Ann Earls), a rebellious goth who shares a last name and a prickly persona with t.v.’s Jessica Jones; and Oliver (Langston Belton), a deadpan math savant whose plans to attend Oxford are derailed when all three receive owl-borne invitations to magic school at 11 years old. All three are assigned to the Puffs, who, as implied by the hashtag #thirdornothing that the program encourages the audience to tweet or instagram throughout the show, exist at the bottom of the school hierarchy, consistently beneath the Braves, the Smarts, and the Snakes. Cedric Diggory (Evan Maltby) is the one revered, shining success of House Puff, but as anyone familiar with the source material knows, the Puffs will eventually have to learn to stand on their own. That journey is where Puffs transcends mere parody and develops its own narrative and thematic arc about growth, friendship, and self-worth, the cornerstones of Rowling’s House of Hedgehogs. Its underdog story succeeds in getting the audience invested in these characters, so that by the end, even the fate of a character like slow-witted Leeanne (Andy Miller) packs an unexpectedly emotional impact.
Of course, there is also plenty of comedy at the Potter universe’s expense, from mocking year five as the longest and angstiest, to pointing out the school’s seeming disregard for student safety of any kind, Snape teaching sex-ed, and the Puffs’ devotion to the often-scorned study of Herbology (".... which is awesome!"). The cast is impressive and engaging, and almost everyone plays multiple parts: Madeleine Bundy, when not fatalistic Susie, makes a great satirical Harry, a bit coddled and a bit oblivious; Eleanor Philips plays Puff Hannah much of the time, but also gets some excellent comic moments as the first version of the headmaster, until another actor assumes the role at the start of year three. If the end of that sentence immediately makes sense to you, then you are the perfect audience for Puffs, but even a passing knowledge of Rowling’s wizarding world will be more than enough to thoroughly enjoy this funny, charming production. (One of your reviewers is a devotee --Ravenclaw! -- while the other saw a few of the movies, so we know what we’re saying here!) Puffs would make even He-Who-Must-Not-Be-Named crack a smile.- Leah Richards & John Ziegler