Until recently the phrase “Harry Potter onstage” might bring to mind images of Daniel Radcliffe, who can’t seem to shake the boy-who-lived title no matter how hard he tries, stripping down for Equus and smirking through How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying. Then last year came Harry Potter and the Cursed Child Parts One and Two, a stage extravaganza which picks up where the novels left off and is currently running on London’s West End (it’s set for Broadway next spring).
But American Potter fans have had their own Hogwarts-themed plays for years now: The Chicago-based theatre company Team Starkid found YouTube fame with their extremely unauthorized “A Very Potter Musical” (starring Darren Criss) and its sequel. Another not-quite-authorized spinoff, Puffs, which began as a lark at People’s Improv Theatre (PIT) in New York, is now a long-running hit Off-Broadway (tickets now on sale through Jan. 14, 2018). Subtitled Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic and Magic, the comedy takes its name from a shorthand for Hufflepuff, one of the wizarding houses from J.K. Rowling’s seven-book series, and it purports to tell story of some of Harry Potter’s forgotten peers: There’s Wayne, the orphan whose parents were killed in a freak accident and was raised by his uncle in New Mexico; Oliver, a math nerd reluctantly propelled into the magical world; and Megan, daughter of one of Mr. Voldy’s followers, who has serious Puff identity issues.
Though a character name Harry (played by Madeleine Bundy) features throughout Puffs, he’s more of a side character than the romantic lead and underdog we all know and love. Indeed, as Puffs portrays him, he comes off as a self-indulgent scene stealer who repeatedly, albeit inadvertently, endangers the lives of the other students.
To say it was ambitious to incorporate the entire Harry Potter canon into the 100-minute Puffs is putting it mildly. But the play’s creator, Matt Cox, says he was strategically selective.
“I did a big reread of the story and I started thinking about just looking for one specific moment where they [the Hufflepuffs] just pop up, or one moment where it’s really random,” Cox says.
Cox anchored the play in Rowling’s original narrative, giving the audience a chronology to hold tight to during the show’s 100, head-spinning minutes. Among the best moments in Puffs are versions of some iconic moments from the series: the first year potions lesson, the House Cup, the final battle.
The show’s director, Kristin McCarthy Parker, also had a big task: to pull off wizard-worthy magic with a small budget and a minimal set. Cox’s script demanded, among other things, spells, broomsticks in flight, fire-breathing dragons, and magical bathtubs. But Parker welcomed the challenge, using creative choreography to bring to life some of the funniest scenes in the play. The summoning charm accio, for instance, is depicted by throwing books and birds across the stage—simple and amusing.
The Puffs cast does double duty, with each playing both a Puff and at least one other character. Their versatility as a whole is to be commended, but special mention must go to James Fouhey, whose death as the wildly energetic Cedric would be a real loss did he not return with such comic prowess as Mr. Voldy.
There are moments when Puffs seems to be asking for more serious consideration. Indeed, Cox is adamant that Puffs is not a parody. Adds Parker, “We’ve done a lot of work over the last several years to really strengthen the dramaturgy behind the three main characters in particular.”
While few of the characters are developed much beyond caricature, by play’s end Puffs has delivered some surprisingly poignant messages: that it’s okay to fail, and that, in the words of the school’s headmaster, “We’re all unimportant. And we’re all heroes. In some way. To someone.” And just when the audience is beginning to process this change in tone, Cox injects some self-deprecating humor, as Wayne asks the headmaster, in disbelief, “Did I just spend seven years at magic school to find out that you think love is the greatest magic there is?”
Like J.K. Rowling, the creators of Puffs didn’t anticipate the success they’ve been enjoying. The initial run at Peoples Improv Theater in December 2015 was only supposed to be five shows long; it was extended until August 2016, and has moved several times since before settling down at New World Stages in midtown’s theatre district. Cox might be describing old Harry himself astride his Firebolt when he says, “It kind of keeps—I don’t know, moving up and up and up.”
Madeleine Kearns is a graduate student in Cultural Reporting and Criticism at NYU and has a degree in English literature from the University of St. Andrews, Scotland.