Tuesday, August 20, 2019

reviews - PUFFS - Scottsdale Desert Stages Theatre

the cast
photo by Renee Ashlock
by Julia Bashaw

New York based playwright Matt Cox decided to take the well-known story of Harry Potter and tell it from another perspective. The seven books and eight movies in J.K. Rowling's series focus on a boy who discovers he is a wizard and are shown through the lens of Harry’s eyes and his experience as a member of Gryffindor house, one of the four houses at Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry. Cox explored the comical concept of telling the same story but from the view of another house at Hogwarts, the Hufflepuff House. This unique play is called Puffs, or: Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic and Magic. It played Off Broadway in 2016 and Desert Stages Theatre presents the local premiere of the comedy. If you are a fan of the Harry Potter series, enjoy a good inside joke, or appreciate a parody then you will most likely love this production as much as I did. It is a clearly constructed, fast-paced show, that has 11 people performing 60 characters and takes place over seven years of magic in a span of two hours. Dan Ashlock’s directing is sharp and clearly shows through in his actors’ effective comic performances.

The Puffs are considered the losers of the school in this take on the Harry Potter story. They are teased, overlooked, and treated unfairly. For audience members who aren't familiar with the story, in the Potter books and films, students arrive at the magical school of Hogwarts and they are sorted into one of four houses. The houses are Gryffindor, Hufflepuff, Ravenclaw, and Slytherin. Cox proceeded to write around the Potter trademarks and developed his four new houses: the Braves, Puffs, Smarts, and Snakes. And thus he began to construct how the Puffs would experience their same seven years at a wizard school similar to Hogwarts.

Wayne (Jonathan Gonzales) questions his purpose as a Puff and why he matters at all if he isn’t the hero like Harry Potter. Oliver (Matthew Eads) was a genius in the ‘muggle-world’ (the name of the non-wizard world in Rowling's books) but struggles at magic. He contemplates if he is worth anything without his achievements. And Megan (Jacqueline Anderson) fights with her conflicting instincts to be evil or good. This trio wanders through their seven years together trying to understand their purpose as a Puff.

This trio of actors gels well together with interactions and character development that come across naturally. Anderson’s ability to yell her lines in a form of intimidation and for Gonzales and Eads to not break character is impressive. It's also quite astonishing how quickly the play speeds through the seven years at Hogwarts while still hitting all the major important plot lines. This 11 person cast plays close to 60 characters with different accents, costumes, and mannerisms to make each role specific. It is entertaining as an audience member to see these actors interact with such quick character changes.

The set walls are covered in rock wallpaper that are meant to look like a section of a medieval castle. There are 5 doors built into the set that are strategically used for comical, quick entrances and exits as an actor performing one character exits through one door then reappears seconds later through another door as a different role. The scenic/set design by Rick Sandifer and Dan Ashlock accompanied by Ashlock’s comic staging is so strategically developed on stage that I can not imagine how hectic the backstage must be with actors constantly crisscrossing paths.

With numerous characters also comes a multitude of costume changes. In a conversation I had with director Dan Ashlock, he stated that there are over 80 costumes used in this production. Within seconds these actors have to not only get into the position of their next character but also look different with the use of just a prop, a wig, or a robe. Actress Colleen Thompson does this several times in a row when the play speeds through showing the Puff students in various classes throughout the day. Thompson morphs into three separate teachers in a span of 30 seconds. Costume Designer Richard “Mickey” Courtney and Production Coordinator/Prop Mistress Ellie Steward have the pleasure of organizing and operating this process quickly and effectively to make audiences understand that the actors would need to have certain defining looks or props to distinguish between their multiple roles. Both Courtney and Steward deserve high praise for their involvement in gathering and designing the dozens of costumes and over 120 props in this production effectively, along with respect to the actors who are organized and quick enough to make their entrances and exits.

With each cast member portraying multiple roles, they work very diligently to develop different accents and tones for each character so they are clearly defined. For example, Eric Bond performs one of his roles with quite an impressive Scottish accent and Bear Golden also produces many accents anywhere from Southern to British. William Rippenkroeger, who plays both Cedric Diggory and Voldemort (or ‘Mr. Voldy’), puts on an impressive performance, showing his abilities as an actor to be both spirited and comical with high energy, yet also dark and defiant with a raspy evil voice that is drawn out.  While the show is fast paced and covers a lot of ground, it helps that there is a narrator that breaks the fourth wall and guides us through the story line. In this role, Paul Hartwell effectively delivers his lines with projection and interacts humorously with the front-row audience members. I personally was charmed when he gave the front row audience members chocolate to console them after the evil ‘Dementors’ showed up or when he gave them puffs brand tissues after a certain character dies.

The special effects that bring the magic alive are creatively executed. When magic spells are used, actors produce props out of books, robes, or seemingly mid-air as a prop is thrown on stage by someone hidden in the wings. The timing is done very well and adds to that sense of childlike belief to accept the magic as if it were real. When magic is used in the show, music and sound effects accompany it which adds to the fun.  Sound designer Eric Gibson enchants the audience as they get to hear spell casting magic, school bells, recorded audio tracks and much more.

The last 15 minutes has a beautifully choreographed rapidly paced war scene that will have audiences on the edge of their seats with brilliant lights, blackouts, and fierce music. This is all due to the incredible work of Stage Manager/Lighting Designer Brady Fiscus, and the Sound and Light Techs Renee Ashlock and Abby Golden.

At the performance I attended, there was only one audio cue that was incorrectly repeated but the cast did a good job of improvising to cover it up. There were also a few lines of dialogue that were missed from the cast due to them not being clearly delivered, overlapped with other lines or being delivered while the audience was still laughing at a prior line. However, the voice projection from the entire cast is superb which works well for the intimate Actor's Cafe theatre space.

At the opening night performance, there was a great turn out that had audiences laughing for the majority of the performance, though, while it's a fast paced show, it did seem to run a bit long, possibly due to it being the first time the show was performed in front of an audience. However, Puffs is an enjoyable show and Desert Stages production made me laugh a lot from the bright and clear comedic performances.

With that being said, do not bring children under the age of 13. This play is rated R, the language is quite strong along with some minor graphic displays carried out on stage. Even though it is a spoof based on the Harry Potter stories, it is not exactly appropriate for young wizards.

CLICK HERE for more information on this production, which runs through September 29

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