There has been a pile of really bad Potterverse parodies; some dreadful novels, a handful of local stage shows that went precisely nowhere and loads of character cameos across TV and film that meant to be winky but mostly just landed with a dull thud.
In terms of broad appeal and quality, though, there are just a small handful: Neil Cicierega’s now defunct but endearingly silly Potter Puppet Pals videos, Emily McGovern’s delightfully snarky webcomic My Life As A Background Slytherin,and Potted Potter, the international touring two-man stage whirlwind that offered a few hearty laughs as they attempted to summarize the entire book series in just over an hour. But for real parody value, it’s hard to beat Puffs, Or: Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic and Magic, currently playing at New World Stages in New York and broadcast to movie theaters via Fathom Events.
Conceived by the fertile loins of the People’s Improv Theater, funded via Kickstarter and produced to quirky low-budget perfection for an off-Broadway run that’s going strong two years in, PUFFS is the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead of the Potterverse, showing us the lives of peripheral and often invisible characters as they navigate the ups and downs (and downs and downs) of teenage life on the brink of magical civil war.
Lest you assume this results in a weighty examination of life in the shadows of greatness, please be aware that Ron is played by a mop.
The trio this time is an unlikely mashup of Wayne, an average orphaned kid who lived with his uncle in New Mexico (Zac Moon), Oliver the math wiz who fears not being the best at everything he attempts (the terrific Langston Belton), and goth girl Megan (Julie Ann Earls), who resents her Puff family legacy even as she seeks the approval of her evil, imprisoned mother.
The setup is good and opens the door to far wackier characterizations like Madeleine Bundy’s pitch-perfect take on Shirley Henderson’s toilet ghost, Stephen Stout’s smarmy teacher of magical liquids (and a certain impersonator of a certain teacher with a prosthetic eye), Andy Miller’s loopy Leanne, and A.J. Ditty’s double duty as both the narrator and the evil overlord Voldy.
One standout is James Fouhy, who played Cedric with such genuine charm and confidence that his death hurt.
Another is Nick Carrillo, who I’d pay to read TWoP episode recaps. His improvisation during a sports practice scene turned into a thorough and fraught recap of the entire movie “27 Dresses”, and during the closing credits we have a chance to see other iterations of that scene, including one punctuated with repeated “PARKOUR!” exclamations while flailing himself across the stage. Whether shouting criticisms as Zach Smith or mincing and judging as J. Finch, Carrillo sold every character he played.
I was entirely unsurprised, after a little sleuthing, to discover the connection between the founder of the People’s Improv Theater, Ali Reza Farahnakian, and the show that kept leaping to mind as I watched, Chicago ImprovOlympic’s ill-fated 1997 Jedi! The Musical Tour De Force. Farahnakian himself was previously an alumnus of the IO and it’s easy to see the mark he’s left on PIT as well; the dedication to using a small budget as part of the humor instead of as a limitation to work around, recognition of adults as a valid audience for a parody of family fare, and what seems like a hard-won lesson from the “Jedi!” days: PARAPHRASE. Quoting the Star Wars films verbatim netted the IO a cease and desist from Lucasfilm that killed the show, and the lengths to which PUFFS avoids legally actionable content is part of the humor of the experience. From the renaming of Slytherin to The Ones Who Sound Like They’re Always About To Throw A Glass Of White Wine In Your Face to sassy character monikers J. Finch, Ernie Mac and Bippy, and the aforementioned mops, PUFFS is filled to bursting with gags riffing on the books, films, and more. This is a play meant for insiders. The jokes come fast and furious, and if you know why the students would remark on how different the headmaster looked at the beginning of year three, or why it was noteworthy that he was calm when calling out Harry’s name when it emerged from a certain goblet in year four, you won’t miss a single reference to the scads of obscure Potter trivia. I laughed. A LOT.
The Fathom Events experience, as always, provided an opportunity to see a live show that isn’t playing anywhere near the Midwest, and it’s hard to beat the ticket price, seating, parking and snack options that are available at a movie theater. If you enjoy classic films, concerts, plays, opera, or ballet and haven’t attended a Fathom Event at your local Cineplex, take a look at their list of upcoming events.
Images by Tilted Windmills Theatricals