Photo Courtesy of Puffs
“Some people are born with the capacity to do great things. Some people change the world. Some people rise from humble beginnings to defeat the forces of darkness in the face of insurmountable odds. ‘PUFFS’ is the story of the people who sit in class next to those people.”-“PUFFS” Press Release
“Puffs,” “Puff” singular, is the fond shorthand of “Hufflepuffs,” the lovable magical misfits of the Harry Potter world, and also the title of the recent Off-Broadway retelling (for avid fans) of the Harry Potter story from the Hufflepuff House’s perspective. While the familiar story starts with a scarred baby dropped on the doorstep of Number 4 Privet Drive, this adaptation takes another orphan all the way from England to America.
Catchy music and strange (magical) P.A. announcements usher the audience into the richly-curtained, dimly-lit theater; the positive side of Elektra Theater’s small size is that every seat is “a good one,” as one man exclaims. Each member of the audience feels intimately connected with the recessed stage. The closely assembled gallery of spectators are close enough to gawk over the 1990’s style slide projecter that opens the set. “PUFFS,” it declares, in sketchy letters cast at an awkward angle across the badger-yellow curtain. The theater is complimented by an equally small, but well-selected, staff of actors and actresses, one of whom throws in an April Fool’s Day joke over the P.A. – using a perfect McGonnagal imitation – to lighten the atmosphere.
This is not the only loving nod to the original series. Just after the set opens, an iconic Harry Potter line, in the style of all things “PUFFS,” is cleverly repurposed:
“You’re a wizard, Wayne.”
The Uncle of our young protagonist declares this in a thick drawl, having regained his wits after the unexpected arrival of a British post owl. Soon enough Wayne is ushered away to Hogwarts, where he contemplates the miracle (and the mess he makes) of magic with his fellow Hufflepuff friends: the previously Oxford-bound eleven-year-old mathematician Oliver (played by Langston Bell) and the angsty Death Eater fangirl Megan Jones (played by Julie Ann Earls). With Harry Potter’s arrival headlining Hogwarts’ gossip chains, however, the good-natured (except, perhaps, for Megan) Hufflepuff clan and their charismatic leader Cedric Diggory, who has wonderful theme music, must fight against the odds to recover the Hogwarts House Cup.
And inevitably fail.
The overbearingly optimistic group continues to strive for success, or at least mediocrity, with the often-chanted phrase “Third [place] or nothing,” fully aware that their final takeaway from the year’s events will likely be fourth place (or nothing) in the House Cup.
Through the (mis)adventures of Wayne, Oliver, and Megan, “PUFFS” follows their attempts to gain house points and a sense of what it means to be a Hufflepuff, with guest appearances from characters like Hannah Abbot, J. Finch, and a marvelously acccurate rendition of Professor Severus Snape.
The vocal dexterity of the cast cannot be denied, as Snape and others take the stage, or even before the play starts, in the half-hour of seating as the actors take turns creating clever and ridiculous school announcements over the P.A.
The chairs are wide and comfortable, and peeking over the edges of the seats, black and yellow scarves and ties make their presence known in every row. Among the Hufflepuff gear, one head stands out in blue and silver. A Ravenclaw sits alone in this out-of-the-way Puff Haven.
…Which takes us to the question: Is “PUFFS or: Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic & Magic” a play for everyone, or just those marginalized and hardcore (or at least as harcore as they can get) Hufflepuffs? After all, we’re not all cut out to be Hufflepuffs, are we?
The main message of this strange Harry Potter sometimes-parody, which bounces between hilarious and heartrending, is what makes a Puff. Gryffindors tout bravery, Ravenclaws treasure intelligence, and Slytherins anthropomorphize snakes, or blonde-haired “assholes,” depending on which “PUFFS” definition you prefer. But what did Helga Hufflepuff seek out in her students? A Puff is loyal, hardworking, and, when it comes down to the four houses of Hogwarts, the Hufflepuffs are, well, the “everyone else.”
But aren’t we all sometimes the “everyone else?” The narrator, played by A.J. Ditty (featured in Hufflepuff colors above), offered a final assessment that yes, everyone can be a Hufflepuff. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing. Besides rooming closer to the kitchens (and the whole hard-working/loyal aspect of the Puffs), the Puffs have one other major advantage: they all fail, and, as Cedric Diggory reminds us before his untimely death, “Failure is just another form of practice… as long as you just keep trying.”
Ditty, of whom a fellow audience member claimed “[He] deserves his own Oscar. Perfect inflection, delivery, and interaction with [the] audience without feeling cliché,” offered a parallel to a quote from the possibly-Hufflepuff Irish playwright Samuel Beckett, whose career A.J. Ditty also shares.
“Ever tried. Ever failed. No matter. Try Again. Fail again. Fail better.” –Beckett
Ditty adds to the question of who a Puff is, “Oh, I learned a lot by doing the show. The Puffs are the kind of people you want to be friends with.” Possibly referencing one of the more lighthearted scenes of the play, wherein Butterbeer makes its first appearance, he adds, “the Puffs are the people you want to have an adult modern beverage with.”
When asked what advice he has to share with modern-day muggle (and magical) Puffs, the “extras” and “outcasts” who are increasingly feeling the pressure of today’s society, Ditty offers, “Keep failing— because it only means you’re going to do better. Even if you fail, it is a key part in growing.”
If Ditty sounds a bit like a Hufflepuff himself, it shouldn’t be surprising. The entire cast seemed cheery and approachable in their interactions with the audience attending the show.
Coming forward to greet me and discuss the performance when the play was over, Ditty paused in his tracks at first.
“Did I high-five you during the show?” He sounded both amused and surprised.
Due to fortuitous seating arrangements, my answer was a definite and mirthful “Yes.”
Later, as I was leaving my interview, I passed by some other cast members signing scarves and programs. The enthusiasm of the crowd had left them one pen short. Reaching into my purse, I pulled out my fountain pen and handed it to Eleanor Phillips, who played Hannah Abbott (and Others).
She paused while signing the first program.
“This writes beautifully!”
The waiting fan laughed, leaning toward me. “Good luck getting that back.”
Eleanor looked confused. “I wouldn’t steal a pen.”
In that moment, she was the epitome of Hufflepuff. Something a “normal person” might not think twice about just seemed absolutely impossible to her. She would never steal a pen.
It was my turn to laugh.
Sure the play is often satirical, but the reituration of Harry Potter’s story from the Puff perspective was cleverly genuine to the smallest detail; even the outside of the theater was decorated with contrived Harry Potter posters and references, papers and designs. There is a whole Harry Potter Hufflepuff world within the walls of the Elektra.
The young woman watching beside me offered her opinion on the “Wayne,” or Neville-esque (Hufflepuff) character’s appearance: “the retelling… was very convincing and tasteful… instead of trying to force the whole ‘Neville should’ve gotten a whole 7 volumes, too!’ Puffs instead faithfully reproduced much of the plot of the series without making it an explicitly different story.”
The idea that the play was true to the series and yet introduced a new twist – a story within a story – corresponded with what Ditty offered as clarification during his interview:
“I think there’s a misconception about the show that it’s strictly a parody. It may wink at the Harry Potter series, but it really does tell its own story. I think it’s a really good one. It’s about heroes, and how not everyone is one conventionally, but everyone can be a hero to someone.”
Who needs to be just a hero, or just brave, just intelligent, just an “asshole” anyways? As one of the play’s Puffs questions, “Why be one thing when you can be everything?”
That perhaps was the biggest issue that I hold with “PUFFS.” “90-ish” minutes is not enough time for everything.
In only ninety minutes, the quick pacing and clever utilization of fun props and rapid-fire transitions made the play dynamic and drew the audience in as much as the Dementors did in the third act, but they left little time to go deeper into what playwright Matt Cox crafted as incredibly interesting and multi-faceted characters.
The play leaves its crowd of Harry Potter fans wanting seven more volumes.
Kristin McCarthy Parker who directed Cox’s “PUFFS” was clearly aware of this. Her spacing and designation take full advantage of the time the actors do have.
Indeed, the whole play seems very self-aware, sometimes crossing the fourth wall, often nodding to the movie series (“I’m telling you guys, the headmaster looks different this year” and “HARRY! Did you put your name in the Goblet of Fire?”), and often parodying scenes that otherwise require suspension of disbelief (like the lake-watching in the second task of “Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire,” or “The Puffs and the Year They Matter”) in a manner which performing artist and Columbia College student Cindy Liu claimed is “delicious.” With full-grown adults playing eleven year-olds (which Mr. Ditty points out with a quirked brow), these are a necessary and graceful concession to the “magic” of theater.
Altogether, “PUFFS” is the Ferris Bueller of Harry Potter reproductions. It is clever and unexpected, with corny humor and philosophical moments; it is an instant classic and has an endearing cast that leads you to question:
“Am I a Puff?”
And after “PUFFS,” you’ll want to find the Puff in yourself.
“PUFFS” is not a sixteen hundred seat “Lion King” style, heart-stopping production, but instead an intimate show built on inside references and energetic acting that at least deserves its motto of #ThirdorNothing on the list of shows for which Harry Potter fans should keep an eye out for tickets in the coming months, notably until the end of its extended run by popular demand (July 30th, 2017).
*As a final note, there is definitely a reason for the PG13 rating, so be cognizant of the “PUFFS” sense of humor when deciding who to bring with you.*
Tickets to Puffs can be purchased here with tickets starting as low as $29.