Wednesday, February 27, 2019

Sound and Fury, Signifying Nothing: Harry Potter and the Cursed Child (Parts 1 & 2)

Noma Dumezweni, Jamie Parker, and Paul Thornley in Harry Potter and the Cursed Child. (Photo: Manuel Harlan)

I grew up reading Harry Potter. I can still remember the seismic event that was each new book release. When I demonstrated textual analysis to my students, it was my go-to source text for impromptu examples. So imagine how utterly disappointed I was when reading the text of Harry Potter and the Cursed Child and realizing that it is, in fact, bad: sentimental, blunt, and (ironically) unrealistic. And diehard Potterheads hate it for breaking with canon at seemingly every turn. I asked a friend who had seen the show in London whether it fares better on stage, and (there was still hope!) she said it does.

Having finally seen it on Broadway, I can say with certainty that the story is still bad, even though the jokes land better. And yet, I still recommend it, because its presentation of magic is a capital “s” Spectacle.

The play comes in two parts with two acts each, but for all intents and purposes it is a four-act play. And surprisingly, despite its five-hour running time, the pacing feels rushed. Chalk that up to playwright Jack Thorne’s stuffed and convoluted plot (based on a story by J. K. Rowling, Thorne, and John Tiffany, who directs), telling the story of how next-generation wizards Albus Severus Potter (Sam Clemmett), Scorpius Malfoy (a scene-stealing Anthony Boyle), and new older friend Delphi Diggory (Jessie Fisher) try to right a historical wrong while coming to terms with the legacy of the previous generation: Harry Potter (Jamie Parker), Ginny Potter, née Weasley (Poppy Miller), Hermione Granger (a commanding Noma Dumezweni), her comic-relief husband Ron Weasley (Paul Thornley), and Draco Malfoy (a prickly Alex Price). Many things are thrown against the wall, but few of them stick, so the emotional climax feels unearned and fails to generate emotion. I won’t spoil anything, but the story includes, among many other things, time travel, hidden identities, a secret heir, three intertwined families, callbacks to the original heptalogy, and way too many candidates for the titular role of “cursed child.”

With all this going on, we scarcely have time to breathe at the end of a scene before a transition takes the stage by storm. Probably because the transitions are too frequent to be unobtrusive anyway, Tiffany has stylized them, with atmospheric music (by Imogen Heap) and many a swishing cloak (costumes by Katrina Lindsay). In fact, with the music, choreographed transitions (movement by Steven Hoggett), and overall spectacle, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is essentially a musical sans singing. There are even a few dance numbers with an ensemble. To facilitate this combination with some fluidity, set designer Christine Jones goes minimal, placing a turntable center stage and using two wheeled staircases and assorted wooden blocks to suggest most everything else. (Doors, windows, gravestones, a pool of water, a magical bookcase, and other implements appear as needed.) The two staircases are actually one divided down the middle, as we discover in two affecting scenes that express the dilemma of two people separated when they ought to be together. Even the space below a staircase gets put to good use.

And then there’s the magic, by Jamie Harrison (sound by Gareth Fry). Most of the tricks and illusions would have been state-of-the-art in the nineteenth century, but they acquire some wonder by being contextualized within a narrative that purports to psychological realism. Seeing wands light up with a flick of the wrist is fun; conversely, witnessing a duel between Harry and Draco (of course) is somewhat underwhelming, due to overused wirework and a lack of specificity for each spell cast. But most of the magic succeeds: everyday items float in mid-air with precision, people are gobbled up by a bookcase, and someone resurfaces from underwater after half an act goes by. The depiction of time travel deploys a couple of astounding visual effects that had me mind-boggled for a good three acts. And there’s an amazing sequence portraying the effects of Polyjuice Potion, which transforms one person into another; the actors playing the people playing them don’t entirely convince, but the scene is carried anyway by their manic glee at getting away with it.

Yet the four most powerful scenes don’t require anything that would call for a magic consultant. Two of these make full use of the entire theater space, and one is a literal showstopper that concludes the second act. The third of these scenes is a harrowing onstage death, technically the only one (no spoilers!), and probably the darkest moment of the play. Finally, the fourth scene is when Albus and Scorpius meet Moaning Myrtle (Lauren Nicole Cipoletti), who is without a doubt the best part of the whole damn thing; the floating ghost (Shirley Henderson) in Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (2002) and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (2005) is grounded (sorry) and made more impactful by the presence of a live actor, resulting in a naughty and delightful performance, the play’s emotional high point.

Given the poor plotting and disrespect for the canon, it would probably yield the most pleasure to regard Harry Potter and the Cursed Child as a completely separate story set in the same world. If you can stay awake through the dramatic moments (or at least refrain from making out as the couple seated in front of me did), the sheer spectacle of it all is something that every theatergoer should experience at least once.

CJ Sheu is a PhD student of contemporary American fiction at National Taiwan Normal University, in Taipei. He also writes about films and film reviews on the side, and has been published in Bright Wall/Dark Room and Funscreen (Taiwan). Check out his blog, or hit him up on Twitter @cjthereviewer.

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