Marvelous yet muddled, ‘The Cursed Child’ enchants

photo of a theatrical play
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The Boy Who Lived may never die. The cultural zeitgeist has venerated “Harry Potter” to an unmatched status after seven books, eight movies, international theme parks and a score anniversary special on HBO Max. While the series’ original author, J.K. Rowling, busies herself with transphobic Twitter tirades, fans of the story have transfigured “Harry Potter” into a somewhat volatile entity, a piece of cultural currency to endure in collective, fan-controlled possession. 

This shared sense of fervor electrified The Curran Theater in San Francisco Feb. 24 as throngs of theatergoers, some clad in their best wizarding robes, flocked for the night’s showing of “Harry Potter and The Cursed Child.”

 “The Cursed Child,” written by Jack Thorne and based on an original story by Thorne, John Tiffany and Rowling, came into fruition as a two-part play envisioning the lives of the original characters and their children 19 years after Voldemort’s defeat. In its new production in San Francisco, the play coalesces into one sprawling, spellbinding and sometimes senseless story.

 The eponymous child falls into his father’s tall shadow even in the play’s title. The story promptly picks up from the epilogue in “The Deathly Hallows” where Albus Severus Potter (Benjamin Papac) awaits the Hogwarts Express. While the novel’s final sentence reads “All was well,” all is decidedly unwell in “The Cursed Child.”

 Old anxieties prick like a throbbing scar as Albus, inward and awkward, frets about being sorted into Slytherin — an anxiety he perhaps inherited from his father. Albus’ aversion to Hogwarts underscores his discomfort with the Potter title, haunted by Juliet’s belabored question “What’s in a name?”

Bouncing beside him is the vibrant Rose Granger-Weasley, played by a tireless Folami Williams. Rose, unlike Albus, is self-assured and popular. She knows she’s a Gryffindor, and she wears her surname like a badge of honor.

Albus may want nothing to do with his father, but audiences will become enthralled with John Skelley flourishing his robes and strutting to centerstage as Harry Potter. Skelley is bespectacled and magnetic, lithe in his movements and sharp in his comedic timing. Harry works a stuffy desk job at the Ministry of Magic as the head of magical law enforcement; he’s basically a wizard police chief.

His boss, once dubbed the brightest witch of her age, is now the Minister of Magic herself — Hermoine Granger, played by the regal Lily Mojekwu. Her husband, Ron (Steve O’Connell) runs a joke shop, and his sister, Ginny (Angela Reed) works as a sports editor for The Daily Prophet; often on stage and more often upset, her most important trait becomes her marriage to Harry.

The plot splits down a generational line. The Golden Trio, mostly Harry and Hermoine, confront the Ministry’s possession of an illicit Time-Turner, which are now forbidden by law. Meanwhile, Albus loses hope in Hogwarts after the Sorting Hat condemns him to Slytherin, just as he feared. Yet, Albus befriends the meek yet hilarious Scorpius Malfoy (Jon Steiger) to his father’s chagrin since Scorpius claims to be the toe-headed son of Draco Malfoy.

 In a play about magic and wizardry, it feels almost ludicrous to dock points for believability, but “The Cursed Child” fits into the “Harry Potter” canon like a square peg in a round hole. Harry flounders as a father, as if he has no recollection of his life on Privet Drive. Despite Skelley’s efforts to conjure a sensible escalation, the dialogue in his arguments with Albus is brusque and jagged, leaving audiences aghast, as if struck by a stupefy curse.

While the time-travel plots similarly reflect the dialogue’s shortcomings — bluntness, myopia — the play’s saving grace is its bewitching production design. Levitation spells are mere child’s play. “The Cursed Child” executes Polyjuice transformations and vanishing acts with disarming ease.

One moment, in particular, follows Albus and Scorpius as they search for Cedric Diggory (don’t ask) in the Hogwarts lake. A transparent screen veils the stage, turning the line of sight from a horizontal plane to a vertical one, similar to a film screen. When the boys begin to swim, their dangling feet create an otherworldly, incandescent magic.

The production’s marvelous execution and undaunted scale is a persuasive token of atonement. The show’s grandeur, compounded by the actors’ exemplary performances, often eclipses the outrageous plot. Despite its narrative shortcomings, “The Cursed Child” exalts theater as a medium much like a portkey, brimming with potential to transfix audiences and transport them to another world.

Maya Thompson is the arts & entertainment editor. Contact her at [email protected].