BWW Review: PUFFS at FTLO Theater Company
If you saw a rowdy mob of people walking through Boston's South End clad in black and yellow this winter, there is equal probability they were heading to a Bruins' game as trekking to the Boston Center for the Arts to see FTLO (For the Love of) Theater Company's premiere production, Puffs; or Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic and Magic. Fans of the Harry Potter books and films turned out in droves, decked out in their quidditch jerseys or Hogwarts' scarves to cheer and laugh their way through the surprisingly thoughtful parody.
Arguably, for a certain age group, there are no greater cultural influences than Harry Potter and Spongebob Squarepants. (Cue laments from the homeschooled crowd that they were never permitted to engage with such low-brow, mind-numbing media. Those of us with less protective mothers are doing just fine, thank you very much!) In a turn of events that would not have been possible even just a decade ago, both franchises have grown and become largely iconic through means which are impossible to capitalize upon. While corporations have tried to sell merchandise based on popular Spongebob memes, by the time the figures or t-shirts are manufactured, the internet has already collectively moved on to the next Spongebob mania, be it a picture of the titular character in drag holding a purse or a moment of rage from Mr. Krabs. While the Harry Potter franchise is still turning out blockbusters, updating its theme park, and packing in crowds for its two-part Broadway sequel, there is an equally sprawling network of fans who engage exclusively with its less-than-mainstream spawns. (Especially those fans who were raised on the books and movies but feel hesitant about supporting their author, JK Rowling, who for decades has demonstrated limp dish-rag political stances and engaged in the exploitation of marginalized groups through her stereotyped portrayals of characters of color, endorsements of queer-baiting, and advocacy against trans people.) For such fans, there is no shortage of ways to engage with the characters they love without giving a penny to the author who has never stood with them. Queer fan art, unlicensed YouTube videos (Potter Puppet Pals, anyone?), an unlicensed parody musical, a record-breaking collection of fan fiction (My Immortal, anyone?), and even an entire genre of music have sprung up in response to the story of 'the boy who lived'.
The past few years have given theatre-goers their offerings unto these cultural overlords, largely because their primary fan-bases have aged into profitability for commercial producers. I caught Spongebob Squarepants: The Musical when its non-equity tour came to the Wang Center. Although the staging featured moments of inventiveness, overall, it felt like it was geared toward an audience of children with a few gratuitous, overreaching references to the cartoon (is mayonnaise an instrument?) for its original fans. After watching Nickelodeon's filmed version of the show with its original cast, my brother pointed out how Spongebob himself, a character one could compare to a middle-aged stoner, was adapted into an overzealous kindergartner. Puffs, on the other hand lands directly on-target for Harry Potter fans.
The play, written by Matt cox, is unexpectedly nuanced and manages to be cynical without becoming vicious and sentimental without becoming saccharine. In an evening narrated by the appropriately queer, winningly smarmy Sarah Rae Brown, we are flown through the story of Wayne Hopkins, an outcast, American wizard who enrolls in a certain magical school the same year as a certain magical wizard who has garnered fame in the muggle world. Though Wayne is still a straight, white man, he is a straight, white man with a penchant for Star Wars and Legend of Zelda, a protagonist much closer to the experiences of the lore's fan-base than the trust fund brat with impeccable athletic skills from the original series. The character's relatability for an already devoted throng of fans seems to secure the script's success and longevity. Alex Wersted is adorably well-intentioned in the role, with Lorraine Kanyike and Daniel Lutz standing in as the lovably hapless foils to Hermione and Ron, respectively. We follow as the characters are sorted into four houses, and most of the protagonists find themselves disappointingly placed as 'Puffs'. Though Rowling has explained that the defining characteristic of the Hufflepuffs is their loyalty, the play unearths and invents what may actually join them all into one house. Jokes arise as characters bemoan their secondary status and limiting histories, but the Puffs share, among other things, an abrasive cheeriness that can be weaponized against 'He Who Must Not be Named', a deep love of slumber parties and mismatched socks, and (of course) a knack for herbology.
Though the script pokes fun at everything from the films' casting switch of Albus Dumbledore to the frog chorus featured briefly in one movie, it devolves into a well-developed, Stoppard-esque exploration of existence. The mocking reception of the Puffs which has been a laughing matter for the first half of the evening suddenly hits all too close to home as Wayne seems to grapple with the ideas of his legacy, or lack thereof. Wersted navigates the abrupt shift in tone with definitive perspective and earns the audience's sympathy in a sense that feels palpable in the small venue and points to promising possibilities for him as an incredibly versatile actor.
Other standouts in the cast (which is across the boards, an astounding display of young, committed, deliciously quirky, character actors from Boston) include Patrick Conaway, as J Finch Fletchely, a Puff who believes himself to be a figment of another student's imagination, Tiffany Santiago as a series of characters who bombastically insert themselves into our heroes' journeys, and Ema Almon who does double-duty as the self-centered Harry Potter and Susie Bones, a Puff defined solely by the fact that she and her aunt are still alive. Above all others, though, Jay McCarthy, currently a student at UMass Boston, displays an understanding of the style of the piece and a physically unlimited elasticity that make him a delight to watch in any of the roles he takes on, all while evoking an image of Donald O'Connor reincarnate. The ensemble meshes together in an appealing way that highlights the uninhibited commitments they make to their zany characters.
The set, designed by Rita Roy, painted by director Taylor Acevedo, and featuring works for sale by local artists, is a pleasing homage to folk art. Four doors are stenciled with insignia inspired by the four Hogwarts houses and the surrounding spaces are festooned with cotton batting cobwebs, tea lights, and torn pages from text books, boasting information about Czar Nicholas, Columbus, and Shakespeare's Globe. Upon entering the space, one could swear they were in a haunted house amicably hewed together by middle schoolers- in a good way. The design feels charming, silly, and fun and sets a perfect tone for the forthcoming, haphazard, almost-British accents and party store props that are about to fly about the theatre. Sight gags are punctuated with homespun puppets, oversized monsters, and other surprises collected by Gabi Popa, Jenn Butler, and director Kimberly Mae Waller.
A highlight scene which shows off the set included a Scooby-Doo-esque chase that stretched the abilities of the wardrobe crew as actors switched between their roles. Another memorable sequence featured the cast posing as cherubs with bubble guns and singing as Steven Souto, a living Hummel figurine, as Cedric, stripped down to let us 'watch a 17 year old boy take a bath'. However, not all of the staging was so well-planned. Several punchlines were lost to portions of the audience, and, having sat in different seats for the first and second act, I had a unique perspective on how few patrons were granted uninhibited access to the entirety of the piece. In a black box surrounded on three sides by audience, the flat design that would lend itself perfectly to a proscenium space posed challenges that co-directors Acevedo and Waller struggled with in perceivable, imperfect ways. Additionally, while the cast had the audience laughing for most of the evening, at a run time of almost three hours, there were moments that felt unnecessarily elongated, and the narrator's framing of how many years our heroes had left at school served as interspersed reminders of how much longer we would be kept in our seats.
Though Puffs has ended its run at the BCA, FTLO Theater Company has more to check out this season here. I will be interested to see where this new company (with its nebulously-worded, buzz-word-riddled mission statement) finds its footing in Boston after such a charming premiere.