Theater Review: “Puffs” in Chicago Overflows with Heart and Pertinence
This weekend saw the debut of Puffs, or: Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic and Magic, staged by Otherworld Theatre Company, located at 3914 N Clark St. in Chicago, Illinois, and codirected by Tiffany Keane Schaefer and Vhenan Armitage Strange. MuggleNet had the pleasure of seeing the show and will be participating in a panel discussion following a performance on Friday, June 23 (more details below). The production is currently slated to run from June 15 to July 23, 2023, with proceeds from each ticket benefitting Howard Brown Health and its longstanding commitment to improving the physical and mental health of the LGBTQ+ community.
Written by Matt Cox, Puffs debuted off-Broadway in 2015 and remained on stage in New York through the summer of 2019. Otherworld obtained the rights to produce the show before the COVID-19 pandemic, but the delay caused by the coronavirus greatly influenced the present production of the show. Puffs, of course, is a parody of the Harry Potter series, which was written by J.K. Rowling and adapted for film by Warner Bros. It was in 2020 that J.K. Rowling’s stance against the validity of transgender individuals became widely known and drew backlash from many, including lead actor Daniel Radcliffe. Potter fans worldwide were faced with the concept that the wizarding world was not as accepting or inclusive as they previously thought.
This month is the third anniversary of Radcliffe’s blog post on the Trevor Project. Since that time, the legal rights of transgender and gender-nonconforming individuals in many countries have been assaulted at an unrelenting pace, and top consumer brands that align themselves with the LGBTQ+ community – even during Pride Month – face threats of violence (such as Target, whose employees faced death threats, spurring the company to remove inclusive merchandise from its stores this year). J.K. Rowling remains a prominent voice in the fight against equality for trans people, and Harry Potter fans are warier than ever about consuming content that might inadvertently support views that do not match their own, financially or otherwise. Celebrating one’s love for Potter has gotten very difficult since the initial run of Puffs closed off-Broadway.
Tiffany Keane Schaefer, codirector of Puffs in Chicago, spoke with MuggleNet regarding the effect that Rowling’s words had on Harry Potter fans who attended the Albion School of Sorcery LARP, set in a similar magical world, which Schaefer has led thrice so far (and which MuggleNet reviewed last year). “Doing the Albions really affirmed to me the importance of still telling these stories,” Schaefer said. “Potter fans don’t want to forget the joy that they had while reading the books or the joy that they had in seeing the movies. They don’t want to feel like they can never talk about those feelings or memories again because of [the author’s transphobic views].” The question became, for Schaefer, “How do we reclaim these core childhood memories when they’ve hurt us because of their affiliation with J.K. Rowling? To me, as codirector of Puffs, there is more power in reclaiming the fandom than trying to act [as though] it doesn’t exist.”
Schaefer’s solution was to stage a production of Puffs that is fully inclusive of trans and nonbinary performers and that has them front and center in the show. Two-thirds of Puffs’s main trio of characters is played by actors who identify as nonbinary, with other cast and crew members, including the show’s codirector, Vhenan Armitage Strange, also identifying as such. The impact that this decision has on the final production is quite powerful. This intention actually makes Puffs feel more authentic than ever before.
Long regarded as outcasts and derided as failures, the titular (Huffle)Puffs of Schaefer and Strange’s production are, here, the living embodiment of a marginalized community, and one that the audience readily wishes to support and cheer on. A cheer for the Puffs is a cheer for the underdogs but also a celebration of diversity in all its forms. When Helga Hufflepuff famously stated, “I’ll teach the lot, and treat them just the same,” she scorned her colleagues’ exclusionism and closed-mindedness, understanding that everyone – when supported – is capable of great feats that benefit the world at large. By placing the characters here with this added modern context, the Chicago production of Puffs breathes fresh life and new meaning into the story.
There is so much to love about Otherworld’s production of Puffs. The Ray Bradbury Stage, where Puffs is performed, is the venue’s largest stage but is itself much smaller than Stage 5 at New World Stages in New York City, where this reviewer last saw the show performed in 2017. Somehow, set designer Vic Nelson and codirector Schaefer managed to compress the impressive backdrop (composed of five functional doors) and place it among the same high caliber of props and decorations that make all of Otherworld’s shows immersive and inviting. As with the original production of Puffs, many cast members take on multiple roles, both distinctive and satisfyingly identifiable to fans of the Potter series. The Chicago cast moves about the space as a cohesive whole, switching effortlessly between characters and scenes. There’s even some close-up magic, which is sure to impress audiences.
Otherworld makes use of its more intimate theater setting to send the actors into the audience at exciting moments. Characters with lesser prominence in the show, such as Sally Perks, are given more to do in this production. The show’s messaging about doing what’s right and supporting one another has never been more relevant topically, and the Otherworld production succeeded in bringing many tears to this reviewer’s eyes.
MuggleNet’s panel, titled “Reclaiming the Fandom,” will take place at Otherworld immediately following the performance on Friday, June 23, 2023, at 7:00 p.m. The panel will elaborate on topics mentioned in this review, such as inclusivity and fan empowerment. For a full cast list and further details about Puffs, see our initial post containing the press release. Tickets can be purchased at OtherworldTheatre.org.