The influence of JK Rowling’s “Harry Potter” is so ubiquitous that even mentioning its standing in popular culture seems like a needless cliche. It’s ubiquity is so overwhelming that one could come to the conclusion that anything which needed to be said on the subject has been said already. Enter “Puffs,” a new satirical play at New World Stages. Rather than being a string of inside jokes, “Puffs” explores the thematic consequences of the Harry Potter universe with a relentless barrage of invention from a breathtakingly talented cast.
“Puffs,” so called because of copyright laws, is the “And Peggy” of the Hogwarts Houses. As such, it’s the butt of many jokes in the Potter fandom. Most people, both in the fictional Potter world and those in our own universe, are pleased to be sorted into any house that isn’t “Puff,” which feels like a catchall for those who aren’t interesting enough to have a defining virtue. “Puffs” focuses in on this forgotten house and employs a “Life of Brian” approach to the Harry Potter universe and imagines an alternate trio of friends, the American westerner named Wayne, Megan, the a daughter of an infamous evil witch, and Oliver, a nerdy muggle born math genius from New Jersey. They arrive into Puff and, over the course of seven years, try to make heroes of themselves and become champions of their house. The plot deviates in surprising ways from the story of Harry Potter, with these characters engaging in their own personal conflicts and dilemmas. While the conflicts of the play lack the dramatic breadth of the book series by virtue of medium, it offers its point with disarming intent and maturity.
While taking numerous (earned and hilarious) pot shots at JK Rowling’s mythology and the film adaptation the play sets to contradict the more problematic undertow of “Harry Potter,” that being its “chosen one” narrative. What if one isn’t chosen in the world of Hogwarts? What if you’re forced into a society that sets messiah-like expectations for you from the age of 10? What happens to your more common virtues? How does one transcend their predestination of “unimportant.” I suppose there’s a bit of “Pippin” in “Puffs. The play, while less formed and refined than the world that JK Rowling conjured, is more morally complex. It doesn’t satisfy itself with the easy questions, and satisfies itself less with easy answers.
Every member of this cast is top of their game. Langston Belton offers Oliver with an incredible sense of a character maturing through seven years. Oliver holds a view of the magic world as someone who’s used to succeeding and whose previous success became sidelined for this trait that he can’t seem to form into a talent. Madeline Bundy performs numerous characters, most notably “Harry Potter.” She doesn’t perform him with perceived bile, but with a visible contrast between his struggle and Wayne’s. Harry isn’t so much someone to be hated by her hand, but a fallible child. Jessie Cannizzaro is hilarious is numerous roles, though the one that sticks out most in mind is that of a squeeky and innocent house elf. Nick Carrillo navigates his labyrinth of characters with brilliant dexterity. Our narrator, performed by AJ Ditty, has the critical awareness needed for such a role but never falls into the trap of smug dismissiveness. He seems more like a mad scientist explaining his latest experiment. Julie Ann Earls performs Megan, the most overtly conflicted of the characters. Her task was one of the most difficult as it couldn’t be dispelled by abandoning the character into vaudeville. She expertly navigates her way to a humanization of Megan without breaking the mad cap world of the play. James Fouhey performs two major roles, Cedric Diggery and Voldemort. It almost goes without saying that these are two of the juicer roles in the play and he takes full advantage. Andy Miller crafts Leanne, one of the more beloved of the Puff ensemble characters. Her energy is simply infectious. Zac Moon performs Wayne, the hero who is burdened by his burdenlessness. Moon is burdened too, with the thematic depth of the plot. We feel compassion for him but can simultaneously hold a critical lens. This leads to a climactic ending which grounds the play but doesn’t douse it in ice water the way moralizing satire likes to. Eleanor Philips performs a bevy of memorable roles, including her Puff “ Hannah.” She also performs as a few professors and Megan’s mother. She switches her humours on a dime and with effortless commitment. Lastly, Stephen Stout is compulsively charming as he takes on his characters including the suave later age Dumbledore.
The energy behind “Puffs” is seen in every facet of stagecraft from acting, to staging, to design. Writer Matt Cox and director Kristin McCarthy Parker exploit both the virtues of grounded artistic intention and vaudevillian improvisation. I imagine both are needed for a satisfying experience in both process, and performance. That they didn’t sacrifice either to the desires of the other shows formidable creative maturity. Madeline Bundy is a creative force to be reckoned with. Her set is equal parts magic, traditional farce, and comic book. Her costuming exhibits the pop of reflexive inspiration but don’t distract from the characters clad in them. Lighting by Herrick Goldman tempers the world in the proper ambiance of magic. Brian Hoes wrote the play’s original music and this is formatted fantastically by Matt Cox’s sound design.