Forget Harry Potter's House! It's Time for Hufflepuffs to Shine!
By JACK SMART
Tuesday, January 19, 2016  •  
Tue Jan 19, 2016  •  
Off-Off Broadway  •   0 comments Share This
"We try to be like a Pixar movie for the stage."
A new parody puts an underdog spin on Hogwarts

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The difference between homage and parody, according to Matt Cox, comes down to reverence. "An homage would be holding the thing up on a pedestal and just kind of redoing it," says the actor-playwright. "While a parody tries to poke little holes throughout."

Puffs, or: Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic & Magic falls somewhere between the two terms. Now playing at the Peoples Improv Theater, Cox's play reimagines the seven Harry Potter books from the perspective of the Hufflepuffs, the gentle and caring house of students at the magical Hogwarts school. The Hufflepuffs are, at best, supporting cast members in the original narrative, but in this version, it's Harry and his fellow heroes from the Gryffindor house who are relegated to the background.

"We are certainly an homage," Cox says. "There's still a love for what those books are and what they mean to people -- I mean, I grew up with them." But from the moment the idea first came to him, he always referred to Puffs as a parody. "One that makes you care a little bit. It makes you laugh, and then you care."

Jam-packed with pop culture jokes, visual gags, and references to even the most obscure details in J. K. Rowling's novels, Puffs follows Wayne Hopkins, an unremarkable boy from New Mexico who -- you guessed it -- discovers he's been accepted to a certain British wizarding school. By focusing on the most overlooked Hogwarts house and its gaggle of endearingly hapless witches and wizards, Cox takes the original story's underdog themes to saucy new heights.

The cast of 11, directed by Kristin McCarthy Parker, helped develop the play in readings and rehearsals with the same improvisational spirit many of them brought to the superhero saga Kapow-i GoGo, Cox's last endeavor at the PIT. "We do these sort of grand comedies that have a tone of epicness to them but are also very human in nature," Cox says of his creative cohort, many of whom hail from the Flea's Bats program. "We try to be like a Pixar movie for the stage. [It's] a grand adventure, but there's a whole lot of heart and feeling. It's about capturing something cinematic in its nature, but also being very rooted in the theatrical."

The sets and props in Kapow-i underlined that style, turning a small budget into a charming theatrical language with handmade cardboard cutouts that simulated video game effects. But Puffs needed its own aesthetic. As Cox says, "The question was, 'How do we do something different while still on the very tiny budget we have?"

The story's premise provided the answer; like the neglected Hufflepuffs, the show's design takes on an exaggerated shabbiness, with a bushy mop filling in for Hermione Granger and bargain-basement magic tricks galore. "I think it says something about the play, the concept of the Puffs being the not-quite-favorite [students], that they're doing store-bought magic," Cox says.

There was also a question of copyright infringement. "We say 'Harry' and we say 'Mr. Potter,' and you never hear the two names together," Cox notes. And although references to the eight Harry Potter movies are sprinkled throughout, producers Stephen Stout and Colin Waitt made sure to avoid direct copies of anything from the screen adaptations.

This is also one of the reasons Puffs is parody rather than homage. "You avoid legal action with the word parody," Cox says with a laugh. "Certainly the original draft of this play would've gotten us sued."

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Follow Jack Smart at @JackSmartWrites. Follow TDF at @TDFNYC.

Photos by Lloyd Mulvey. Top photo: The cast of Puffs.

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