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Categories: CultureTop Stories

The Very Real Magic — and Flaws — of Harry Potter Are All Out on Stage

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Sometimes it feels like the boy who lived — and his story — will never die.

And it probably won’t. Attempts to lengthen Harry Potter’s longevity have been varied, ranging from amusement park reimaginations to the ever-evolving Pottermore.com (now known as WizardingWorld.com). Some tries have been controversial: The infamously disturbing “trivia” tweet about the way wizards poop comes to mind. Others have been much more successful: Take Harry Potter and the Cursed Child for example — a six-time Tony Award-winning play that’s now playing at San Francisco’s Curran Theater.

Written by Jack Thorne, Harry Potter and the Cursed Child the play succeeds in ways that Harry Potter and the Cursed Child the script does not. When Harry Potter and the Cursed Child’s script first released as a hardcover book, reception was a bit mixed. The two-part story (four acts, two intermissions, one long break) follows Harry’s future family and the social struggles his youngest son, Albus Severus Potter, faces at Hogwarts with his best friend, Scorpius Malfoy. It’s a time-traveling journey that explores different alternative realities, which critics felt read like fanfiction. Not good fanfiction. Bad fanfiction. It’s hard not to see why. (Most egregiously, Voldemort has a daughter, a bizarre situation that contradicts everything we know about the villain, and even feels like a character stretch for the mother of his child, Bellatrix Lestrange.)

Courtesy of Matthew Murphy

But, as J.K. Rowling herself said, the best way to experience Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is to see it performed. The San Francisco cast — barring some poor British accents — are excellent in their roles, in particular Jon Steiger (Scorpius Malfoy) and John Skelley (Harry Potter). Steiger embodies all of the awkward charisma that makes Scorpius a beloved addition to the Harry Potter canon, and Skelley brings unfiltered rage to a well-known character like we’ve never seen it before.

Undoubtedly, the set and lighting design and special effects are also stars in Harry Potter. In fact, I don’t think you could’ve pulled off a show like this without the incredible efforts of Christine Jones (set), Neil Austin (lighting), and Jamie Harrison (magic and illusions). When you go to Harry Potter, you are seeing magic performed on stage, in real life. Fire shoots out of wands, dementors fly in ominous wisps from the ceiling and over the crowd, staircases move, and bookshelves eat people. Clever light and shadow manipulations conceal and reveal to create the illusion of talking portraits and transfigurations. At one point, it looks like Scorpius and Albus Potter are swimming in a massive aquarium in the theater, a trick that uses light, harnesses, and a giant curtain for a visual masterpiece. It’s an experience that truly makes Harry Potter’s magic feel real. In the last scene of the show, golden light pours through the ceiling of the theater, illuminating the stage’s wooden arches and bringing the play to a peaceful end.

The set, lighting, and magic redeem Harry Potter from some of its lesser qualities (the existence of Voldemort’s daughter was much easier to swallow during its reveal, which was dramatized by off-stage projections). But no amount of visual design can hide the fact that Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is sexist. Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is a play that assumes that if a woman doesn’t marry a certain man, she’ll become a vindictive and cruel person (which is what happens to Hermione in an alternative reality where she isn’t married to Ron). It believes that a feminist win is if Ginny says “Harry does most of the cooking,” despite not having any truly complex female characters who serve as more than comforting support systems for the men in their life or manipulative villainnesses who use their powers to fool the men in their life. It ignores the toxic masculinity of Ron’s destructive jealousy, which apparently, the future of the wizarding world depends upon.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is also confusingly sympathetic to people who are effectively pure-blood supremacist terrorists. “Tom Riddle was lonely,” Draco Malfoy says, which is: (1) not true, Riddle was extremely popular before and after he became the wizarding equivalent of a Nazi; and (2) the same justification people use for school shooters. Acknowledging that real friendships and bully-free communities are important for a healthy childhood is one thing. Using the absence of them as justification for violence is another (and an inaccurate portrayal of how these factors play into a person’s life). But Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is even convinced that if Cedric Diggory’s popularity was slighted, that he would go on to become a death eater.

These inconsistencies are rather problematic for a show that’s meant for a children’s audience. Play-goers should take away the universal values of friendship, kindness, and family that Harry Potter very clearly espouses. But when it comes to the nuances of these themes, things get a bit murkier, and it doesn’t feel like Harry Potter and the Cursed Child is equipped to sort through them.

Harry Potter and the Cursed Child, open run, at the Curran Theater, 445 Geary St.  $59-$199; 415-358-1220 or  www.HarryPotterOnStage.com

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Grace Z. Li

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