News Column

'Potted Potter' takes a breathless tour through J.K. Rowling's modern classic

May 8, 2013

YellowBrix

May 08--A giddy crowd of "Harry Potter" fans young and old descended on the 710 Main Theatre Tuesday night for the local premiere of "Potted Potter," a dizzying tour through all seven of the popular young adult books that left practically everyone in breathless hysterics.

The vocabulary and characters of J.K. Rowling's modern classic are now embedded firmly enough into the popular imagination that you need not have read the books or even seen the films to grasp the humor of this piece of relentless slapstick. The vaudevillian show is as much for "Harry Potter" obsessives and aspiring Quidditch stars -- one man in my row claimed he'd read each of the seven books seven times through -- as it is for run-of-the-mill muggles.

The show, which began as a street performance in 2005 to amuse fans waiting in line for the release of the sixth book, is the brainchild of U.K.-based Daniel Clarkson and Jefferson Turner. It enjoyed great success in Britain, a place even more deeply obsessed with the franchise than America, and later spawned popular productions in Toronto, New York City, Australia and South Africa.

For this production, Clarkson and Turner's show gets a magnificent treatment from Gary Trainor and Delme Thomas, a sort of Hogwarts-educated Abbott and Costello whose scripted hijinks come off as the inspired riffing of two very old and very good friends.

The concept of the show is a simple one: Two friends have been charged with mounting a spectacular production of Rowling's entire "Harry Potter" mythology. Trainor is an expert on the subject, while Thomas, we're meant to believe, has only the dimmest knowledge of the key plot points, mistaking the wizard training ground Hogwarts for a pair of warthogs and constantly questioning the logic of Rowling's character development strategies.

Thomas portrays Ron Weasley, the meek redhead perpetually at Harry's side, as a Cockney street tough in a fluorescent Carrot Top wig. His version of Harry's precocious friend and fellow wizard Hermione Granger consists of a wig with two dangling pigtails and a few syllables delivered in a deep, gravelly voice. His Professor Snape, the mercurial instructor who is perhaps Rowling's most complex character, introduces himself simply by running out onto the stage from behind a wardrobe, declaring that he hates Harry Potter, slapping him, and then running back off stage.

The winking nature of the show is one of its central charms, and the gifted comedic duo has thoroughly demolished the fourth wall in order to involve the audience more deeply in what seems more like a personal game than a traditional theater production.

"Dumbledore is the greatest wizard alive, and you're telling me that he went, of his own volition, into teaching?" Thomas asks at one point, incredulously, to the groans of Trainor and the laughter of the audience.

After one particularly hammy bit about halfway through the 75-minute joyride, Trainor looks into the audience and declares: "I think we can all agree the victim is theater."

The pair, because of its reliance on the standard music hall formula of straight man and incorrigible instigator, is free to add its own personal quirks and bits of improv into the performance. It's a complete joy to watch an actor as self-assured as Thomas execute his endless series of costume changes and absurd sight gags, as it is to watch Trainor's eye-rolling responses and feigned irritation.

Perhaps the most surprising part of the show is that it actually communicates a genuine sense of the long story arc that spans Rowling's sprawling, 4,000-page-plus series. Each book gets a different treatment from the pair, ranging from a rapid-fire school lesson to a musical puppet show set to "I Will Survive."

For many of the younger audience members -- and a few of the older ones, no doubt -- the highlight of the show was most likely a theaterwide game of Quidditch that had the entire crowd batting around a beach ball and attempting to send it flying through one of two illuminated goals hanging on either side of the stage. Half the audience got to play members of the virtuous Gryffindor house, while the other adopted the hisses and underhanded tactics of the evil Slytherin house. Neither side won. But fun, I think it's fair to say, was had by all.

Whether you're a "Harry Potter" fanatic or a mere muggle, this show is guaranteed to bring a smile to your face.

email: cdabkowski@buffnews.com

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(c)2013 The Buffalo News (Buffalo, N.Y.)

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