Helder Guimarães offers truth in deception in his newest magic act.
Helder Guimarães is an excitable magician, likely to shout, "That's awesome," or "I am right," when he guesses the correct card in one of his tricks. It's not so much that he's a shameless self-promoter, but considering his bottomless well of enthusiasm, one gets the sense that he would make an excellent QVC host. In his newest show at New World Stages, Verso, he's not selling a tennis bracelet or mini steamer, but skepticism: Guimarães wants us to be skeptical not only of his very impressive act, but the hustles of the everyday illusionists all around us.
After correctly guessing an audience member's cellphone passcode (allegedly through telepathy), he asks the volunteer if he is impressed. The man nods yes, leading Guimarães to turn to the audience and say, "And that's when the con men get you." It almost feels like a seminar on the psychology of the swindle (Guimarães has previously given a TED talk, a form uniquely suited to his style). In a craft as reliant on the suspension of disbelief as magic, it's a ballsy choice to ask viewers to sharpen their BS-detectors, but that's exactly what Guimarães does consistently through this thought-provoking show.
Luckily for him, he's an incredibly gifted parlor magician who always remains at least two steps ahead of us, so none of the wonder is lost in his philosophizing. Originally from Portugal, Guimarães became, at the age of 23, the youngest competitor ever to win the World Championship of Card Magic (he is now 33). His dexterity with a deck is truly astounding, as is his almost freakish ability to recall a sequence of cards after just one glance (surely a major ingredient in many of his tricks). Verso marks his off-Broadway return after 2012's sold-out run of Nothing to Hide.
As with that earlier show, the magic tricks are incredible: Items taken from audience members disappear and reappear in other parts of the building (without Guimarães ever leaving the stage). Several times he seems to read the minds of strangers…or at least, those we perceive as strangers. "Magic deals with misconceptions, misperceptions, and creating a false narrative in people's minds," Guimarães writes in a program note, essentially admitting that he will spend two hours tricking us. We appreciate the honesty, but it only serves to heighten our doubt.
Director Rodrigo Santos and scenic designer Catarina Marques do little to put us at ease, staging the show in what appears to be a warehouse: Wooden crates with Portuguese names stamped on them cover the upstage wall, extending far into the house. It offers plenty of little nooks for hidden cards and other props. Pedro Vieira de Carvalho's dim lighting (featuring a series of untrustworthy incandescent practicals, prone to flicker off without notice) adds to the intrigue. Playing the expectations game, Guimarães wears a conservative grey three-piece suit, making him look somewhat more like a financial analyst than a magician (no costume designer is credited). "Of course, the greatest con men in history all wore suits," he reminds us.
With Verso, Guimarães has created a magic show for our paranoid age, one in which faith in institutions and governments is rapidly breaking down. He tells us to trust no one, not even him. And while we walk away refusing to believe that what we saw was truly magic, we are at a loss to explain how exactly Guimarães has deceived us. Having that experience in 2016 without feeling abused is its own kind of magic.