Subtitled “Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic and Magic,” Matt Cox’s Puffs is an affectionate spoof of/homage to J.K. Rowling’s famous series of fantasy novels. First developed in 2015 as an off-off-Broadway production, Puffs — now being performed by the Potomac Playmakers in Hagerstown — focuses on the funny and more serious tribulations of members of the most downtrodden House at the school, whose schoolmates think of them as losers.
The play’s off-off-Broadway roots are evident in the production’s style, which features deliberately dorky dialogue, over-the-top character portraits, and frequent group physical comedy scenes. To the credit of Director Anna Lynch, the cast remains committed to this style with commendable energy throughout the production’s five-hour duration (no, not really, as the narrator, Hannah Schreiner, is quick to clarify in her opening monologue).
The plot’s convolutions — far too numerous to mention, as Cox tracks events relating to the seven volumes in Rowling’s series — are best left to fans as deeply immersed in the minutiae of the Potter universe as, say, attendees at a Star Trek convention might be to the intricacies of the Starship Enterprise and its progeny. Suffice to say, a vocal contingent of such enthusiasts at the opening night performance loved the details in Puffs’ take on the saga, finding almost every moment hilarious.
The play is very much a well-coordinated ensemble piece, which is its principal strength, but some of the individual performances were noteworthy. Schreiner’s narrator was a knowingly amused guide to the proceedings. One of many actors who played multiple roles, Christopher Leatherman gave his chortling, evil Dark Lord in the second act a nice contrast to his earnest Cedric in the first act. A consistently annoying Harry Potter (Colleen Cheney) turns up from time to time, wielding brooms entertainingly representing two other prominent Rowling characters.
Stephanie Mull’s Megan — a character with significant mother issues — had more depth than many other characters and wound up being rather endearing. Her boyfriend, Oliver (Nathaniel Webb), brought a level-headed presence amidst the overall chaos. Marisela Siebert admirably filled the script’s slot for ditzy/sexy girls. Wayne Hopkins (Nic Sigman), a lad seeking meaning while dealing with the combustible combination of adolescence and magic school, effectively bears the weight of not being a hero who has been destined to save the world.
Special recognition should also go to Stage Manager/Assistant Director Devin Taylor, who not only kept the complicated machinery of the staging running smoothly but is credited with the delightful props design, highlights of which were a variety of birds of different sizes and colors, lighted wands, and a very large, very dusty volume 5 of the saga. She also made two brief appearances on stage, which, for me, were the funniest moments of the evening.
While the program does not name a sound designer, the sound design was one of the most satisfying elements of the technical production. The timing of the numerous sound cues — tied to lines, actors’ movements, or action involving props — was precise and, as far as I could tell, flawlessly executed.
The tone of the second act darkens somewhat, in tune with the later parts of the Potter stories themselves, but the pace also slackens, as monologues (e.g., by a foul-mouthed coach) and prolonged bits (like Megan’s mother’s repeated inability to come up some magic words and lengthy farce chase and combat scenes) slow the momentum. Act 2 also includes some effortful attempts to give deeper meaning to what has happened, as when, toward the end, Wayne wonders how to deal with the situation of being a peripheral character in a story that centers on someone else. Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead brilliantly explored that theme long before Harry Potter came onto the scene.
Puffs is a well-executed and pleasing show that, while perhaps aimed primarily at Harry Potter fans, has sufficient theatrical merit to be enjoyed by audiences in general.
Running Time: Two hours 20 minutes, including one intermission.
Puffs, Or: Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic and Magic plays through November 20, 2022, presented by Potomac Playmakers performing at the Potomac Playmakers Performing Arts Center, 17303 West Washington Street, Hagerstown MD. Tickets, priced at $18, are available online and at the door.