Tuesday, June 20, 2023

'Puffs' relates seven years at school of magic


Their classmates challenge (from right) Megan (Michelle Skinner) and Wayne (Will Livingston). 
Photo by Scott Lasky

Matt Cox’s “Puffs,” subtitled “or: Seven Increasingly Eventful Years at a Certain School of Magic and Magic,” is being staged by Palo Alto Players.

Inspired by the enormously popular Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling, it takes place at the same time that Harry is attending Hogwarts School of Witchcraft and Wizardry in England. However, it’s not Harry’s story. Rather it’s the story of other students, called Puffs.

It features an ensemble cast of 14 mostly young adults. It revolves around three of the students: Wayne (Will Livingston) and his friends Oliver (Nicholas Athari) and Megan (Michelle Skinner). Another major character is the Narrator (Tiffany Nwogu).

During their seven years together, they encounter numerous challenges and dangers.

Harry Potter fans probably will recognize many of the characters and events mentioned. Those who aren’t at familiar with the series might find themselves wondering what’s going on despite a talented, likable cast.

Director Kristin Walter doesn’t help because she allows too much shouting and jumping around. Group hugs get to be old hat.

These factors probably contributed to the reason why several people left during intermission of the reviewed June 18 matinee.

On the other hand, many in the audience seemed to enjoy it, often laughing throughout the performance and cheering loudly at the end.

The purposely gloomy set is by Kevin Davies with lighting by Edward Hunter, sound design by the playwright and costumes by Jenny Garcia. Brian Metolius composed the background music.

According to a PAP statement, the show “is not authorized, sanctioned or endorsed by J.K. Rowling, Warner Bros. or any person or company associated with the Harry Potter books, films or play.”

Running about two and a half hours with an intermission, “Puffs” will continue through July 2 at the Lucie Stern Theater, 1305 Middlefield Road, Palo Alto.

For tickets and information, call (650) 329-0891 or visit www.paplayers.org.


Thursday, June 15, 2023

'Steel Magnolias' blossoms at TheatreWorks

Shelby (Jasmine Milan Williams, center) shows pictures of her baby to (from left) Annelle (Alexandra Lee), Clairee (Marcia Pizzo), Ouiser (Nancy Carlin) and Truvy (Lisa Strum). Kevin Berne photo

“Steel Magnolias,” playwright Robert Harling’s loving portrait of women in a small Louisiana town, is being staged by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley.

Harling didn’t intend to write a play. He just wanted to write something for his nephew to know more about Harling’s sister, the boy’s mother.

Afflicted with diabetes, she defied medical advice by having a baby and thereby overtaxing her body. Her kidneys failed.

She went on dialysis until she received a kidney transplant from her mother, but it failed. She died when the boy was 2 years old.

Taking on a life of their own, Harling’s recollections evolved into a play set in a beauty shop. Every Saturday morning six women gather there to get their hair done, exchange recipes and talk, mostly about themselves and their families.

Covering about 2 ½ years, the play shows how these women cope and get on with their lives.

Earlier productions, including the one that TheatreWorks staged at the Burgess Theater in Menlo Park in 1991, have featured an all-white cast. However, director Elizabeth Carter has selected a multi-racial cast of white, Black and Asian women.

Their ethnicity doesn’t matter. Their warm camaraderie and caring do.

The shop is wedged between the patio and garage at the home of Truvy (Lisa Strum), the owner.

Her regular customers include M’Lynn (Dawn L. Troupe); her daughter, Shelby (Jasmine Milan Williams); and two neighbors, Clairee (Marcia Pizzo) and Ouiser (Nancy Carlin).

In addition, Truvy has just hired Annelle (Alexandra Lee), a young newcomer to the town.

As the play opens, Shelby and M’Lynn are having their hair done for Shelby’s wedding that afternoon. Clairee, widow of the town’s recently deceased mayor, and the eccentric, curmudgeonly Ouiser arrive for their appointments.

In a later scene, Shelby announces that she’s pregnant, much to her mother’s dismay. When the baby arrives, it’s three months premature but survives.

In the meantime, Clairee has found new interests, including travel, theater and a male friend. She also has bought the local radio station. Ouiser, too, has started seeing an old boyfriend.

As the play proceeds, it becomes more serious, but it’s offset by the friendly banter, warmth and humor throughout the action.

Harling has a keen ear for Southern speech and hilarious comments. For example, Shelby loves pink and has used it for everything in her wedding, including the church. Her mother says the church looks like it has been sprayed with Pepto-Bismol.

Although the action opens in 1986, some moments are familiar today. For example, a local fundamentalist preacher objects to calling the town’s high school sports teams the Devils because it encourages Satanism.

Carter does a superb job of directing this ensemble cast while each actor creates a believable, very human character.

Adding to the play’s enjoyment is the detailed set by Andrea Bechert with lighting by Steven B. Mannshardt, costumes by Dana Rebecca Woods and sound by Christopher Sauceda.

The production’s only drawback is that some of the Southern accents are difficult to understand.

Otherwise, this is a highly entertaining play that captures the importance of friendship in women’s lives.

Running about 2 ½ hours with one intermission, it will continue through July 2 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View.

For tickets and information, call (877) 662-8978 or visit www.theatreworks.org.