LOGAN — Few works of literature are so impactful that their cultural clout is powerful enough to create an unauthorized spinoff that becomes an off-broadway success. Harry Potter is certainly one of those. It takes someone truly brilliant to hone and refine a story that can land with so many people regardless of their culture and background. Yet, Matt Cox, creator of Puffs, or Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic & Magic is able to do just that as he launches those familiar and unfamiliar with a certain wizard boy’s story into the world of the seemingly forgettable losers — the Puffs. Utah State University’s production of the show highlighted the play’s pop culture origins on a frigid February Friday night through creative technical design and execution, brilliant black box staging, and actors who were committed to the moments of comedy and tragedy that makes Puffs so popular.
The Chase Fine Arts Center at USU is a beautiful venue with several performance spaces and art galleries. Tucked into a corner, the black box theatre was a magical world to enter. The set featured four onstage entrances including both up and under a spiral staircase, through a fireplace and into the iconic Mirror of Erised. Scenic Designer Jacob Clawson’s set was innovative from other productions, and used an intimate space to great effect, and the effect of the castle backdrop was worthy of any world of wizards. Upon the set, magical projection effects from designer Brian Gerrick and Audrey Kearl were spectacular to look at, and important plot elements throughout the script including keeping track of the house points that Puffs so often would lose and reflecting the deepest desire of a Gen X wizard teenager’s heart — to have a lightsaber.
For those unfamiliar with Puffs, it hilariously lampoons the Harry Potter story, with care to not infringe on intellectual property, from the perspective of the badger loving, kitchen loitering, perennial losers of Hogwarts. The play is broken up into eight episodic acts that mirror the famously similar series of books and instead focuses on three new characters who are not part of Hogwarts lore. The central character is Wayne Hopkins (Ben Quiroz) who is thrust from the home of his hillbilly uncle into a certain school of magic & magic and views himself destined for incredible things as he sees parallels in his own life to the typical hero’s journey. He quickly befriends math prodigy Oliver Rivers (Jonah Newton) who is frustrated to find that being good at non-magical learning doesn’t give him any leg up in the wizarding world. The third seemingly unlikely member of their trio is Megan Jones (Brooklyn Bullard) who has no interest in being a puff and wants to be rescued by her mother who is a notorious dark magic user. Finally, the play has a narrator (Andrew Moody) who magically highlights the seven years with the puffs and in the end fits into the narrative as well. The rest of the cast plays many canonical characters that appear in similar form including a slew of puffs, several teachers, two iterations of the headmaster, a certain dark wizard who isn’t named, and more. These characters switch between roles at a frantic pace, sometimes changing wigs on stage or going through lightning quick costume changes to step into another role.
The acting was overall impressive. Much like the original story, it took until the third book or act for the play to find its groove, but the characters had immediate on stage chemistry and played the story’s comedic bits with fervor. Quiroz in particular stood out with a dynamic portrayal of Wayne. Having seen the play done by several casts, I had ideas of what to expect, and Quiroz still found new ways to elevate the central protagonist. In the moments of anguish at the death of Cedric and his uncle, Quiroz had a gravity to his character that didn’t just parody the angst so often noted of Harry Potter in the fifth book of that series. He took seriously the moments where Wayne sought to accomplish something great, and his arc was both clever and harrowing.
I was similarly impressed with the versatility of Jack Carter Roberts who played eleven characters with distinction. Roberts was a master of disguise as even knowing the parts, his vocal and physical range in each role took time for me to realize he was indeed the same person. This was highlighted in his violent gait and head wobbling as Real Mr. Moody and his Rickmanesque cadence as A Certain Potions Teacher. Grace Garner’s portrayal of Leanne, Frenchie and others drew on the same skill set. Garner brought joy and aloofness to the portrayal of Leanne that made what happened in the play’s climactic battle truly mood altering.
So many moments worked so well in the show. Kudos to director Britannia Howe for making so much use of few actors and a small space. There is a scene in the fourth book or act where the most popular Puff, Cedric, is taking a bath and nearly all of the rest of the cast forms a singing bathtub. The Puffs made themselves, through their investment in each event, more interesting to watch than a dragon fight, a chaotic maze, and even staring into a lake for an hour — admittedly not a high bar on the last one. I’d love to highlight each actor for their strengths but applause is in order for each of them as this, more than so many shows, requires each member of the ensemble to be strong and engaged.
A tip of the magical talking hat is also in order for the spectacular costume designers Addie Mulholland and Lydia Semler who brought a costume heavy show to another level. The show drew heavily on 90’s grunge patterns and styles blended with wizarding world robes, hats and badges. There was also a great pop culture reference when Cedric enters the bath and by removing his robe, we see him sparkle and glitter – nod to Robert Pattinson who played both Cedric Diggory and Edward Cullen of Twilight fame. Another great reference was Cedric wearing a batman halloween costume again pointing to his role playing the dark knight and Wayne’s following along as Robin. The choice was insightful and comedic, but came at the expense of a later joke where Cedric seems confused by the idea of Batman asking, “Which half is the bat?”
The only technical element that didn’t totally land was the sound design by Ky Trupp. The actors didn’t need to be miked as they filled up the black box well, and I understood the choice not to simply license the original sound score as a university owes its students the chance to innovate. I simply felt like there were long gaps in sound and some of the choices for sound effects like winning and losing house points were lackluster. In a show with so many strong moments, that’s a small nit to pick, but I felt like opportunities to tell the story through sound were missed.
Owing to its content, Puffs plays best to a millenial, Harry Potter raised audience. However the general comedy and sincere story of Wayne, Olliver and Megan is so compelling that it has broad and multi-generational appeal. It was interesting to see some of the Gen Z jokes such as Phinneas and Ferb’s Dr. Doofenshmirtz play to this audience in moments where the script allows for some improvisation from a cast of undergraduate students. The show is about so much more than riffing on JK Rowling’s creation. It’s about seeing yourself as the hero of your own story, and dealing with the randomness of grief, joy, and unmet hopes and expectations. Utah State’s cast and crew highlighted those things expertly. This weekend, put your Hogwarts Legacy connected game controller down, make a beautiful drive into Cache Valley, and experience the bewitching Utah State University production of Puffs.
[b0x]Puffs, or Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic and Magic plays at Utah State University Daryl Chase Fine Arts Center, 1150 East 700 North Logan UT on February 8-14 at 7:00 PM and 10:00 PM. Tickets are $10-$15. Show is appropriate for ages 13+. For more information, visit https://cca.usu.edu/theatre/productions/puffs.[/box]