“Well, this might be the last show we see for a while,” my date commented as we filed into the Ruth and Bucky Stein Studio Theatre at Thalian Hall.
“Yep, Broadway’s shut down,” Kevin Lee-y Green informed us.
Well, if I had to pick a show to get me through an indefinite theatre hiatus, Pineapple-Shaped Lamps and Techmoja’s joint production of “Puffs” by Matt Cox is a winner (and not just third place). Really, the entire evening is magical, joyful and a powerful reminder of what makes life worth living. Unfortunately, after opening one weekend, PSL had to shut down the production per a mandate from Thalian Hall, which has closed and halted all shows in light of COVID-19 threatening our community and others across the U.S.
Here’s the simplest way to explain the plot to “Puffs”: It is “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern” for the Harry Potter universe. In an hour and a half, the show condenses the action of seven books and connected films (and stage show), as seen through the eyes of the minor characters.
Amanda Young narrates the show. In real life, she is one half of “The Fox and the Foxhound,” a podcast about “love, marriage, and Harry Potter.” Since this is essentially a show about the minor characters in Harry Potter’s world (some of them so minor as to not have names), she is perhaps the perfect local to cast as the narrator. She has a great sense of comedic timing (including an understanding of the dry, rapid-fire British humor necessary to move along the plot), an encyclopedic knowledge of the Potterverse, and a passion for the work that radiates from every molecule of her body while onstage.
Instead of getting introduced to a certain boy wizard with a lightning scar on his forehead, we meet Wayne Hopkins (Brett J. Young), who was raised in the American Southwest by his cowboy-hillbilly uncle (Eddie Waters). Wayne had no idea he was a wizard, but once he gets his letter and arrives at wizard school, he is certain he is the one marked for greatness. He gets sorted into one of four houses. His house, the “Puffs,” are not necessarily taking home any trophies. They are, however, a sweet blend of misfit kids with one incredibly cool standout: Cedric (Matthew Carter).
Wayne befriends Oliver Rivers (Ben Hart), also new to the wizarding world, and Meghan Jones (Grace Carlyle Berry), the very angsty, would-be-evil daughter of a follower of he-who-shall-not-be-named. To see the handsome and charming Ben Hart as a geeky, awkward, math savant, complete with hypothyroid bulging eyes, is a bit of mental leap, but he convinces. It’s weird in the way that seeing Val Kilmer portrayed as awkward instead of sexy might be. Watching Berry’s journey from angry, bitter teenager to an adult who has faced decisions that change you forever is pretty remarkable.
Carter’s Cedric is, of course, hard to wrench your gaze from: He has charisma, vitality and is clearly everyone’s hero. When he tries to help Wayne study, it is a lovely moment that shows us the person who will soon become a martyr.
The cast brings to life a host of other characters from the Potterverse, including Ernie Mac (Wesley Brown), Hannah (Anna Gamel Huber), J. Finch Fletchley (Eddie Waters), Leanna (Holly Cole Brown), Sally Perks (Beth Corvino) and Susie Bones (Jamie Harwood). Folks can also expect to see nods to Neville Longbottom, their favorite Hogwarts professors, the death eaters, and of course, a certain wizard and his two best friends. Each scene and all characters cycle through at such a fast and furious pace that, honestly, when we got to curtain call I was shocked by how few people actually got up onstage and made so much magic happen! It is a real compliment to the cast that each character was distinct, believable, recognizable and contributed to forwarding the story.
Part of what made “The Cursed Child” (the Harry Potter stage show) so sensational was the incredible stage magic that was built into the script. So one can imagine special effects or the completely over-the-top art direction of the films would be the aspiration for a project like this. Instead, scenic designer Eddie Key has produced a stripped-down playground with a double-sliding door system that allows for quick venue changes and even a shadow puppet play or two.
Costume designer Amber Heck manages to nail the ‘90s vibe and the key pieces to signal character changes without getting bogged down in cumbersome costumes that would make such changes impossible. Visually, she communicates each point simply, effectively and with humor.
“It reminds me of PSL’s early shows, you know, when we fell in love with them,” I commented to my date.
“You mean back when they had no budget but big hearts and bigger dreams?” he said with a grin. “Yeah, it was brilliant and it felt a lot like those early shows. I loved it.”
The magic of this show isn’t expensive special effects that wow audiences. The lesson in the books is that love is the strongest magic in the world—both love between a parent and child, and love between friends. The magic of this show is the love the performers have for the material and each other. It fills the stage and touches the hearts of the audience. It captures exactly what theatre is: a magical moment when a group of people come together to make something greater than the sum of their parts.
Thalian Hall is currently closed because of public health concerns. As Tony Rivenbark reminded in his notice to patrons, the theatre closed for the yellow fever outbreak, too, but it opened again. We will have theatre again in Wilmington. And when we do, PSL plans to reopen “Puffs” and continue its run. Don’t miss it.
Thank you, PSL and Techmoja and the entire cast and crew, for giving us a magical reminder to hold onto while we get through the next few weeks: The Puffs decide together they are stronger than apart, and we must remember that, too.