WASHINGTON – Five minutes before Friday night’s showing of “Potted Potter” began, theatrical smoke filtered out from the back of the stage into the fully-lit house.
People were still finding their seats in the crowded theater at the Shakespeare Theatre Co.’s Sidney Harman Hall on F Street NW, but Jefferson Turner had surreptitiously seated himself onstage and was reading “Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows,” the seventh installment of J.K. Rowling’s internationally renowned and beloved book series.
Daniel Clarkson, Jeff’s partner in crime and the only other actor in Friday night’s performance, strode out into the audience and began high-fiving everyone he could reach, beginning at the front and working his way back.
As the music began, he waved enthusiastically to the many audience members he could not reach in time before taking the stage with Jeff for 75 minutes of utter ridiculousness that left the audience doubled over in their seats with laughter.
Dan and Jeff are the masterminds behind the production, which originated in the UK in 2005. The acting duo was commissioned to create a 5-minute street show that recapped the plots of the first five Harry Potter books in front of long lines of fans waiting for the midnight release of the sixth book.
Over the past eight years (and two books later), the show has morphed into a full stage performance that is now on tour internationally, hence its presence in the U.S.
The reason why this show, which incorporates a humorous, off-the-cuff acting style better known as “improv,” can travel so successfully is partly due to its structure.
The lure of seeing a madcap Harry Potter performance along the lines of “Potter Puppet Pals” or “A Very Potter Musical” attracts large audiences, but the danger of a Potter parody is unintentionally creating something cheesy.
The show’s loose base of written, planned and rehearsed material only made Dan’s and Jeff’s use of improv better, however, fleshing out the performance and responding to the audience’s involvement to make Friday night’s performance unique.
There were so many moments of silliness that it is impossible to pinpoint a few favorites, though the Quidditch match was awesome (picture half on the audience trying to hit a beach ball past the other half of the audience to hit a lighted target hanging to the left and right of the auditorium’s seats). Quidditch is a sport played on broomsticks in the Harry Potter series and each game hinges on the capture of the Golden Snitch, a very small golden ball with wings.
Two young girls, both volunteers from the audience, ran around onstage trying to catch Jeff, who was dressed in a yellow construction hat and golden fabric held away from his body by large hoops that gave him a round shape. The game ended when one of the girls tripped Jeff, who face-planted onstage, causing the audience to explode with laughter.
Dan used this moment to define his improvised humor several times later in the show.
“All right, Slytherin, run around and lull him into a false sense of security, then BAM!” he quipped. “I can see how you won the War of Independence. ‘The British are coming! Just send in the little girls.'”
The performance was sprinkled with pop culture references — everything from a Lion King moment when Dan pranced offstage singing “The Circle of Life” to a side remark about Ben Affleck being cast as the next Batman. There were multiple hat tips to other fandoms besides Harry Potter, including references to Star Wars, Lord of the Rings and Twilight.
When Jeff introduces “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” Dan describes Harry as the typical whiny teenager: “I hate you, teenage angst. Oh! I’m going to go sulk in my room and listen to Radiohead.”
Dan’s free-spirited and intentionally goofy persona plays off of Jeff’s snobbier, more high-strung persona well during the show. The whole production was entertaining to watch and was so funny at times that both Dan and Jeff struggled against fits of laughter. The audience was fully engaged for all 75 intermission-less minutes of the family-friendly performance, which is impressive, given the short attention span of the modern audience.
Ultimately, the show is most entertaining for Harry Potter fans and those who know at least a little bit about the stories, but there is something in it for everyone — even a Jay-Z reference.
“You were beaten up by a tiny little girl,” Dan said, referring to Jeff’s onstage fall during the Quidditch match. “She has 99 problems, but the Snitch ain’t one.”
Check out a short YouTube video:
“Potted Potter” is playing in D.C. through Sept. 15. Tickets start at $45 and are available through the Shakespeare Theatre Co.’s website.