An emotional shadow hung across Mobile’s theatrical community during the last two years of the pandemic. The inherent uncertainty of crowded theaters scared audiences and performers alike. Individual shows were canceled at Chickasaw Civic Theatre and Joe Jefferson Playhouse (JJP). Fairhope’s Theatre 98 pulled the plug on an entire season.
When longtime structural decay at Mobile Theatre Guild finally shuttered their doors — the troupe has promised to reemerge in new digs elsewhere — it dimmed another light.
Hope still gleams, though, even amidst our current Omicron variant surge. JJP (11 S. Carlen St.) will spark their stage lights for a Jan. 14-30 run of the comedy “Puffs (or Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic and Magic).” No sleuthing needed to deduce this is a farcical send-up of a popular series of books and films about a boy wizard’s adolescent adventures.
Playwright Matt Cox couldn’t use the name “Harry Potter” without tempting copyright infringement. Same for JJP. This column space doesn’t have the same restrictions.
“Puffs” surveys the enchanted Hogwarts’ academy from the perspective of students inhabiting its less-prestigious ranks, the Hufflepuffs. All seven Potter books are crammed into one send-up, then a spell cast for madcap laughs. The result is layered in knowing allusion but with plentiful humor for those who aren’t Potter acolytes.
Some of the silliness is in its casting; 11 actors portray a whole school’s worth of characters. The quick changes and altered personas only add to the delirium.
“They’re walking out one door and right back in another as a completely different character so it’s a challenge,” director Eric Browne said.
The result is a choreographed shell game for prop and wardrobe workers.
“It is just a hodgepodge of elbows and arms, costumes and props backstage to get back out on cue,” actor Jake Coleman said.
A local theatrical mainstay lauded as Igor in JJP’s 2019 production of “Young Frankenstein,” Coleman inhabits eight characters for “Puffs.” He claimed his penchant for juvenile behavior makes him a natural for his characters.
“They’re all eccentric in their own way and I’ve been given free rein to make them more so,” Coleman said.
The actor is well past 100 Mobile-area performances in all Mobile Bay-area theatrical companies over the last 17 years. This added to what the director quickly cited as the production’s most notable attribute.
“This entire cast operates like a group of professionals. Several of them are also involved in a local improvisational theater group so when it comes to just the nature of this show and the comedy of the show, they’re just very on their toes,” Browne said of the “low-drama, high-talent” crew and their chemistry.
Coleman pointed to the inclusion of several drama instructors from area high schools as one cause. Browne teaches at Baker High School. Mary G. Montgomery High School teacher Molly Tice (portraying five characters), St. Paul’s teacher Chip Goff (portraying Wayne Hopkins) and Theodore High School teacher Cheryl Raley (stage crew) round out the instructors getting a turn to strut their stuff.
The multitasking and quick adjustments needed for Coleman’s roles come easier to him than many. He lives within shouting distance of JJP, so the proximity has pressed him into sudden service in the past.
“I got a message, ‘One of the actors had an emergency they had to take care of and it’s about 4 o’clock, so can we just give you a script?’” Coleman said.
It was a supporting role so memorization was at a minimum. Coleman took quick stage direction and sensed his way through the blocking.
“It sounds more impressive than I made it look,” Coleman quipped.
Browne wasn’t stressed about blocking “Puffs” in allowance for COVID protocols. Vaccination and booster proof was required at auditions. And there’s another advantage.
“It’s not a musical so we don’t have people really pushing that air out and vocalizing,” Browne said.
Other measures will be in place. Attendees are required to be masked. While the “110-ish minute” show still has an intermission, there will be no concessions served. There also won’t be a post-show meet-and-greet with performers.
Friday and Saturday curtain is at 7:30 p.m. Sunday matinees are at 2 p.m.
Tickets are $20 and can be bought at joejeffersonplayers.com or by calling 251-471-1543.
As a warning, among special effects like fog and general lighting are strobe lights. Sensitive viewers take note.
No technology is necessary for the director’s most cherished, mystical element, however.
“It’s got that magic of the theater that we need most today,” Browne said.
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