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Off Broadway Reviews

Potted Potter

Theatre Review by Matthew Murray

Jefferson Turner and Daniel Clarkson.
Photo by Carol Rosegg

The quaffle flies through the air with the greatest of ease in Potted Potter, the "unauthorized Harry Potter experience" that just opened at the Little Shubert Theatre. Sure, one of the central balls in the enormously popular wizarding sport Quidditch may look a lot like a clear plastic inflatable globe, and it may be kept aloft more by the audience's hands than by actual chasers. But seeing the quaffle jet lazily (and sometimes haphazardly) throughout the theater while two seekers seek out and eventually beat up the golden snitch (or at least a grown man dressed like one) onstage is irresistible enough that you might become enchanted with J.K. Rowling's insanely popular children's books all over again.

If only everything else in Daniel Clarkson and Jefferson Turner's tribute to the world's most famous and popular boy wizard stayed as effortlessly airborne. Originally from London, where it's played in various forms since 2006, Potted Potter is a delightfully low-tech and low-key labor of love. Too bad it's also low-impact and labored.

The thrust of the show—even calling it a conceit would be stretching it—is that Clarkson and Turner are going to dramatically recreate all seven of Rowling's books over the course of 70 minutes. (There's some nonsense about Clarkson blowing the budget on a dragon puppet, thus forcing the duo to do everything themselves, but they don't expect you to take that seriously.) And, with the aid of a bare minimum of set pieces (the credited designer is Simon Scullion), a few carefully selected props like wizard hats and wands (and, for Turner, who plays Harry, the requisite round glasses), and a considerable amount of energy, that's what they do.

More or less. Clarkson, Turner, and their director Richard Hurst are obviously assuming (not at all unreasonably) that everyone in the audience already knows every detail of Harry's seven-year struggle against Lord Voldemort, and thus don't actually need a blow-by-blow recounting of events. That's a good thing, because the show glosses over or ignores entirely countless characters and plot points that have until now always been considered essential (Hermione is, for all intents and purposes, a bit part here), in the service of making their retelling "fun." And, given the guileless joy and creativity with which Clarkson and Turner approach their task, I suppose it is.

But it's not as much fun as it seems like it should be. The thrill of this kind of performance should derive from the ways the actors achieve their theoretically impossible goal, not the ways they avoid tackling it. A cliché-counting breakdown of the events of The Prisoner of Azkaban, replacing the last book and half with a performance of a rewritten "I Will Survive," and of course that Quidditch game are amusing diversions. But they kill time that then can't be used for telling (or even just suggesting) the story, and the more that happens, the less energizing the show is.

Although one suspects the evening is intended to recall The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (Abridged), it reminded me more of another Off-Broadway curiosity from several years back, The One-Man Star Wars Trilogy: a wild-and-woolly nerdfest on a culturally familiar topic. But the more famous the material, the further the creators have to take it to make it their own, and Clarkson and Turner are too willing to settle for easy, insight-free ideas. (The one exception: a strangely wry and potent dissection on the two themes of Deathly Hallows as being camping and death.)

Because the show even struggles with internal consistency—Turner is presented as the Harry Potter expert, yet apparently forgets Dumbledore's eventual fate and can't remember the contents of a book unless he's holding it—the funniest moments are those that appear unscripted. At the performance I attended, a piece of chocolate cake brought down the house two separate times, apparently unintentionally, and some unexpected audience interaction garnered the biggest laughs. Clarkson and Turner proved themselves so adept at improv, in fact, that I wanted to see how they'd wing an entire performance; loosening their reliance on dumb plot devices and eye-rolling through lines (Clarkson reads the seventh book in his moments offstage, apparently) would only help.

As currently constructed, however, Potted Potter is at its best when it's at its most free and least concerned with convention. It's also family-safe, naturally, but almost to a fault: Rowling's books captivated both children and adults because of how they well they blended magic and fantasy with tragedy and evil, but Clarkson and Turner have avoided any kind of an edge. What remains is unbridled fandom, entertainment that exists too often in an echo chamber. That goes a long way to explaining why the Quidditch game is so much fun: It's one of the few times all evening that Clarkson and Turner notice you're there.

Potted Potter
Little Shubert Theatre, 422 West 42nd Street between 9th Avenue and Dwyer Street
Running Time: 70 minutes, with no intermission
Tickets online and current schedule: Telecharge

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