PUFFS! Spoiler alert— not everyone’s favorite house…but when a hat speaks, you listen! Let’s be clear here, there will be much foolish wand waving and silly incantations in Artistic Synergy of Baltimore’s production of PUFFS or Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic and Magic. Fresh from Off-Broadway, and playing a limited four-show engagement, PUFFS is the ridiculously absurd parody play that will banish all your boggarts back into their closets with a healthy dose of laughter. Directed by Melissa Broy Fortson, this two-hour nonsensical entity will not be saving any wizarding worlds from anything with all of its spooftacular shenanigans, but it chock-filled with certain wizarding references for those in the know. I mean Sirius-ly, know your HP before you go for maximum enjoyment.
Despite a whole novel’s worth of technical hiccups, setbacks, and hang-ups, if you can get around some microphone issues (predominantly hot mics so that when groups start making noise— and there is a lot of loud group noise in this show— that it becomes somewhat of an ear-splitting blur of sound), sound cues not fully registering (either from being cut too short by their creator or terminated prematurely by the board op), some of the “magic effects” having bad sightlines for the audience, and the lighting cues sort of landing asunder, you’re in for a very good time. Lou Otero’s magical doors are the most impressive technical element of the show as they seem to work nearly all of the time, albeit slowly at times, and appear to open and close of their own accord. Tech is hard. Puffs are Puffs. Tech is not a Puff thing.
But having hilarious shenanigans happening on stage with enthusiastic verve, despite the 100-degree heat wave happening in the ASoB space, now that is most definitely a Puff thing. The cobbled-together parody and spoof nature of the show lends itself to some of the more theatrically corny performances witnessed throughout the evening. And it’s all of these little moments come together that make the show enjoyable. It may not be much to look at from an aesthetic standpoint, it may run a little long (and have an intermission for the sake of community theatre concession sales, which are adorably ‘wizarding world’ themed), and it may be third on your list of things to do this weekend, but it is definitely a heart-warming, hilarious experience that the performers are enjoying and by proxy, so too the audience.
Director Melissa Broy Fortson doubles up as the show’s Narrator and some of her more glib, tongue-in-cheek moments are delightful. Her costume change at the intermission seems a bit out of place, especially as that hideodeous yellow dress is perfectly on point for a Puff. But sartorial selection aside, Fortson is a forceful current, guiding and at times tugging, pushing, pulling, and rolling, the “plot” along its progressive path. Giving Fortson a hand in the transfiguration department, the show’s run crew— Tiffany Bell, H. Ray Lawson, Jennifer Otero, and Steven VanBlargan, deserve 50 points to the Puffs. Each. For their magical backstage workings during this production.
They’re Puffs! Every single last one of them; doomed to be personality-less nobodies forever. (Don’t sit in the back of the house unless you want to be sad forever. Or sit in the back if you want fans to not be hot forever. It’s a quaint venue; there are no bad seats. But you’ll feel more of the Puff-love if you sit closer to the stage.) With just more than a dozen bodies on stage, there’s calamity and chaos and a feel-good, throw-down explosion of nonsense, but anyone coming to see Puffs, knows that already. And there will be moments where you will shake your head and groan and there will also be moments where you will laugh so hard that you feel like you might pee (I feel like that’s a very Puff thing…) Sit back, let them work their magic, and try not to die in the big magic battle at the end.
Where does one even start with a show like this? The three unlikely besties? No, not Swotty-McFrizzy Hair, the ginger and the boy with the perpetually broken glasses (they all have their story, seven of them and one stage thingy, in fact! But that doesn’t stop at least one of them from making an “in-person” type appearance in this show.) This Puffy trio features Wayne Hopkins (Charles W. Johnson), Oliver Rivers (Lou Otero) and Megan Jones (Jackie Williams) the essential epitome of dorktastic nerds gone wrong, except for Megan Jones, who starts off as the stereotypical badass girl with divatude. Their lasting friendship mirrors another golden trio that we all know and love in an awkward, slightly pitiful but equally hilarious fashion. The highlight of Johnson’s performance comes during year five when he’s hardcore channeling all the emo-angst of HP in his fifth year. Johnson really lays on the full experience of that priceless one-liner: “Year-5 in one word? Emotions.”
Otero is the adorkable sidekick whose character is really a class-A nerd from the mugg** world. (Hey, who knows who reads these things!) With dorktastic little moments that give nerd-culture all of its endearing charm, Otero wins over the hearts, or at least the giggling sympathies, of the audience straight away. Williams and her particularly foul attitude, her perpetual shoulder-chip, and her overall ferocity bring balance to the kingdom of the geeks, though it is the Megan Jones character that grows the most and changes the most, creating a microscopic landing pad for the sincerity of this show. (Jackie Williams gives the show heart and truth, okay!?) The face-off scenes with wannabe baddie Xavia Jones (Lydia West) are quite entertaining and highly amusing.
While everyone outside of the principal three doubles, triples, and quadruples up throughout the performance, some actors take on all sorts of roles that are just absurdly entertaining. Bill Bisbee— because who cares about Ernie Mac— is the master professor type. Tittering through and screaming about a t-t-trooooool in the dungeon, flouncing about with his ridiculous hair before dueling club, drolly drifting in like a ghost of history, serving up sarcasm as the surly bat of the dungeons, moodily barking madly, taking over the role of the dotty-yet-sagely old man in charge, and nearly heedlessly floating through in the nick of time, captures most (I think) of Bisbee’s time on stage. A hilarious cameo booster, Bisbee adds some real flavor to all of our beloved Magic School faculty. Of course, Bisbee isn’t the only professorial sort. Remember all of those great professors, from the books that shall not be named, of classes like “seeing the future?” “mugg** studies” and “crappy old stones”? Yeah neither do we (JKR didn’t give them much focus, so no surprise that Puffs playwright Matt Cox doesn’t either) but they’re all played with wonderful hilarity and gusto by Temple Fortson, who might be the most clueless Puff, well, maybe next to Leanne (Stacey Bonds.)
Chrys Bell has three memorable characters— Ginny, Bippy, and Myrtle. Mastering that squeaky shrill sound and broken patois that accompanies the moaning toilet terror, Bell is most impressive with this cameo, and she’s quite adorably obnoxious playing Bippy the token elf of the house. Stacey Bonds is her own special breed of Puff when it comes to playing Leanne but has rather endearing moments as Helga when she’s caught in flashbacks with exquisite sketches of the heads of ‘Smart, Brave, and Snakes.’ (Sketch art compliments of Samantha Murray.) And speaking of Samantha Murray, playing the infamous boy who lived, lives, and continues to live, she is a down-right scene-stealer. There is an uproarious flavor of hilarity that Murray imbues into the Harry character, zipping in, stealing scenes, and managing to remind everyone exactly why we need a theatrical engagement focused specifically on Puffs in the first place. Brava, Samantha Murray. (And watch out for the equally hilarious cameo of Harry’s nemesis, that blonde ferret, being played by Amy Tucker!) And see if you can’t count the number of times Susie Bones (Michelle Harmon Bruno) doesn’t die. Do you have enough fingers?
When it comes to front-running show-stealing shenanigans— sorry, Potter, you get seven books, eight movies, two theme parks, and a two-part Broadway play— it’s a dead-heat hoe-down between Joe Weinhoffer and Rob Tucker. Weinhoffer gets the dual blessing of playing the Puffs’ most earnest boy, the dorkily charming, jolly-hockey-sticks, delightful Cedric and the rather revolting yet comically hilarious Mr. Voldy. Try not to die laughing when Weinhoffer struts onto the scene with nose-tape, a green swim-cap, and no shoes as the aforementioned he-who-shall-not-be-named-anything-other-than-Mr-Voldy. His nonsensical shoe-rant is a scene-stealing gold mine that just has the audience rolling in the aisles with laughter. The juxtaposition of Puffs’ golden-boy Cedric and McNasty himself is just too perfect and Weinhoffer handles the transition divinely.
Where does one even start when it comes to Rob Tucker, the puffiest Puff of them all? A jack-of-all-characters tradesman, Tucker is a hoot regardless of which role he’s filling. Even his minimal appearance as the buck-toothed, overbite-present Neville, is hysterical. His “petrified” freeze-action when J. Finch Fletchley encounters the big-baddie-freezing-snake is diabolically delightful, you’ll have that image frozen in your mind all night long. Tucker tackles the J. Finch character and brings it to the forefront of the Puffs experience, making him one of the most memorable Puffs in the performance. And watch out for his performance as the “enormous eremite” is a scream. Between his gimbling, gyring physicality and the vocal affectation he chooses for that ghostly apparition of a character, Tucker once again finds away to make these background characters the full frontal center of attention. Sort of like he does with his Mermaid moment in the ‘perfect’ bathtub scene. And his “Krummy” performance as the visiting champion during fourth year is on point with all of the rest of his outstanding character work, truly giving main-stage life to background individuals.
It’s a team effort, being yellow on team-Puffs— hiiiiiiii! And the whole Artistic Synergy team comes together to present a mostly enjoyable and definitely laughable experience when it comes to this mocking parody play. It’s a Puffs thing. You’ve got to see it to get it. So see it. Be a Puff. Be proud to be a Puff. And get your tickets, as there are only three performances left during this extremely limited run of PUFFS or Seven Increasingly Eventful Years a Certain School of Magic and Magic.
Running Time: Approximately 2 hours and 5 minutes with one intermission
PUFFS or Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic and Magic plays a limited engagement through July 14, 2019 at Artistic Synergy of Baltimore in the basement of the Prince of Peace Lutheran Church— 8212 Philadelphia Road in Rosedale, MD. Tickets can be purchased by calling the box office at (410) 833-5181 or by purchasing them online.