'Potted Potter' Whizzes Through the Wizard World

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Just this summer, San Francisco's Marines' Memorial Theatre hosted 50 Shades! The Musical, the touring parody of the ubiquitous erotica series. Now that venerable venue brings the Bay Area another sendup of an even more popular book series: J.K. Rowling's Harry Potter books.

Potted Potter: The Unauthorized Harry Experience -- A Parody by Dan and Jeff was "written and created" (which are apparently two different things) in 2006 by Daniel Clarkson and Jefferson Turner, a British children's television double act. They've since followed it up with Potted Pirates and Potted Panto and are reportedly on the lookout for "other potting opportunities beginning with the letter P." (I suppose Potted Porno would be too obvious.)

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Potted Potter creators Jefferson Turner and Daniel Clarkson

The play proudly proclaims that it zooms through all seven Potter books in 70 minutes, although the program fesses up that it's more like 75. "Potted" here just means condensed, not drunk, but the show's so loose and goofy that it would be easy to believe either one.

Oddly enough, there's no indication whatsoever in any of the advance publicity that it's no longer the creators performing the show, and all the photos still feature Dan and Jeff. Fortunately, the touring actors are thoroughly charming (and utterly British) enough to make it work. James Percy plays the more serious Potter-head who plays Harry and wants everything to be big and glorious and true to the book. Delme Thomas is the breezy, silly one who hasn't read the books and has blown all the budget for actors, sets and special effects for one really great dragon for book four. He also plays all the other characters in a variety of dime-store wigs and hats, often in close succession.

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There are more than 300 characters in the books, but Thomas doesn't have to worry about nearly that many. This show doesn't entail nearly the level of nerdy virtuosity involved in zillion-character solo shows such as Charles Ross' touring One Man Star Wars Trilogy and One Man Lord of the Rings, or Rick Miller's Shakespeare Simpsons mashup MacHomer. Indeed, much of the humor of Potted Potter comes from how half-assed it is.

potted potter
Potted Potter creators Daniel Clarkson and Jefferson Turner

Simon Scullion's set is a deliberately random and cheap-looking assemblage of items: a coffin, for the spookiness; a tropical beach scene with "Forbidden Forest" spray-painted on it; and a wardrobe, the better to get to Narnia. There is, however, a great deal of stage smoke, dramatic lighting (by Tim Mascall), and use of video for PowerPoint-style presentations in director Richard Hurst's artfully naff-looking staging.

The potting involves frenzied recaps of what each book is about in the broadest strokes (on the level of "Harry beats Voldemort again"), much more summary than reenactment. You won't hear the Sorting Hat mentioned, nor the Dursleys or Dolores Umbridge, nor even the Ministry of Magic. Most of the people who are mentioned we don't learn anything about: Hermione isn't even a smartypants, just a pair of pigtails, and all we know of Hagrid is a Scottish accent nicked from Shrek. Del just wants to chuck all the exposition and play Quidditch, the flying-broom-based sport of wizards. There are audience participation bits, liberal use of a Super Soaker and Silly String, and a Harry-and-Voldemort duet of "I Will Survive."

Some of the comic bits are honestly clever, such as a magical battle made up of the simplest slight-of-hand tricks, and it's all performed with such full-on gusto that you can't help but enjoy it. It certainly has its share of lulls as well, and when the actors crack up at a supposedly unscripted moment, it seems like the chaos must be planned, because the mishap in question isn't quite funny enough to warrant all the fuss. But the off-the-cuff stuff is sharp, too: when one audience volunteer mistakenly knelt on Tuesday's opening night, Thomas quipped, "It's all right; I'm not royalty. It's just an accent."

Potted Potter may not have enough content to satisfy the savviest Potterphiles, and it explains so little that it may be mystifying for uninitiated Muggles. But it's an amusing bit of fluff for the casually acquainted viewer who's maybe seen a couple of the movies and enjoys the scattershot references without making much fuss over them.

Potter Potter: The Unauthorized Harry Experience runs through December 8, 2013 at the Marines' Memorial Theatre in San Francisco. For tickets and information visit shnsf.com.

All photos by Brian Friedman.