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Review: Quarantine Magic Show The Present by Helder Guimarães Is a Confounding Thrill

Geffen Playhouse presents the first production of its new Geffen Stayhouse initiative.

Helder Guimarães
(© Jeff Lorch)

I love watching magic shows, and I love it when great magicians fool me. But I'm also deeply skeptical. I love discovering the technical magic that goes into the creation of tricks, devouring all that I can about how individual illusions are built and what it takes for such skills to be learned over time. There's one trick in The Present, a new 70-minute work from the Geffen Playhouse and illusionist Helder Guimarães, that I will never be able to figure out. And it's the one that I took part in.

Currently sold out through August 16, The Present was created in response to the coronavirus pandemic and the forced isolation that comes with it. It is performed live eight times a week over Zoom to 25 households per show, with each receiving a mysterious package in the mail several days prior. The contents of the box play a vital part in the experience, and you cannot open it before Guimarães instructs you to.

As a youngster, Guimarães was subject to a similar kind of quarantine as the one we're living now, after a car accident triggered a seizure that left him in a coma for several days. During his recovery, he was forbidden from leaving home, kept under the watchful eye of his grandfather. Forced into social distancing before it was cool, and dealing with the idea of mortality for the first time, Guimarães took refuge in learning parlor magic. The thrillingly confounding tricks performed between his tender monologues prove why the Portugese-born talent was the youngest person ever to win the World Championship of Card Magic.

A scene from The Present by Helder Guimarães and presented over Zoom
(image provided by Geffen Playhouse)

For a live show on the Internet, The Present is a surprisingly smooth experience. Frank Marshall directs with a light touch; the camera work of Catarina Marques is outstanding. Guimarães himself is an affable but slyly deceptive host — he knows that he's going to f*ck you up, but he does it in such an unassuming way that you're drawn into it without even realizing. And when he does, it'll make you jump out of your seat with excitement.

I'm loath to describe the tricks, particularly the one that required me to be on camera in full view of the other spectators while having my mind blown at the same time (note to future viewers: make sure you wear pants so you don't have to scramble like I did when you're unexpectedly called upon). Before this, I thought magic, particularly card tricks, worked better in person. There's an immediacy to it when you're in the same room, eye to eye with the performer, that doesn't exist over digital video, even if you're both live. It's also easier to figure out.

But The Present has made me change my mind. For the life of me, I just can't get to the bottom of any of his tricks, especially the one that I was asked to participate in, which either required telepathy or a whole lot of pre-show reconnaissance (it was probably that option, but I still can't get to the bottom of it). It's also the first time that I'm allowing myself to give up my usual skepticism in order to lose myself in the sheer enjoyment of being fooled.

The more I think about it, the more I realize that The Present is the most fun I've had this whole period of time. Days later, I still get goosebumps as I stare at the evidence provided for me and only me within the mystery box. It makes my heart race. It pisses me off to no end. But it proves how incredible Guimarães is at his chosen career. I'm currently at the point where I think what he did was supernatural wizardry, and for once in my life, I'm content to believe that.

The mystery box
(image provided by Geffen Playhouse)
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