Helder Guimarães in the Geffen Stayhouse production of The Present, directed by Frank Marshall. Courtesy photo.

I probably shouldn’t be writing this review, for two reasons. First, there’s almost no chance that you can buy a ticket for this experience. Its first two runs were sold out through July, and the third extension through August sold out within half an hour. And second, after really looking forward to this production and without giving too much away, I made a big mistake – I dropped the deck of cards on the floor that we were to use for many of the show’s biggest surprises.

During this COVID-19 time, a number of theaters have created content that you can watch online, live or pre-recorded, both past performances and behind-the-scenes features or in the form of current panel discussions. The Geffen Playhouse took it a step further. Calling their offerings Geffen Stayhouse, they’re presenting a live magic show via Zoom that 25 people can participate in, hands-on, with eight performances a week.

THE PRESENT, THE PAST, OUR TIMES

The show is “The Present,” aptly titled as it really IS a gift and is about many kinds of gifts that life can dish out, but also about the present moment, as in this quarantine we’re living through.

Call him what you will, magician, illusionist or card master, Helder Guimarães tells the tale of his own quarantine, which happened when he was a child recovering from a devastating accident, and the relationship it created, if retrospectively, with his grandfather, who took care of him while his parents worked and he recovered at home. Too much more and I’d be giving things away that only he should reveal. But he’s relating our time in quarantine to his own and how, in quarantine, he learned to do card tricks and resolved to become a master magician.

And how, pray tell, does a magician do tricks, with audience participation, via Zoom? THAT was the biggest astonishment. Kudos to director Frank Marshall and the tech team behind this production. And does it ever feel intimate! When Helder occupies the full screen and looks into your eyes, it feels like it’s JUST you he’s talking to—which, despite the other 24 faces in little boxes off to the side of your screen—really is very much one-on-one. The card tricks will blow your mind—especially as you are doing them yourself.

Only 25 participants can join by Zoom, and each of them has been sent a special box in the mail, with instructions NOT to open it until instructed to do so by Helder. Inside there are a few objects (one of them is a number on a label so he can call on you individually) that you’ll need to participate in the experience, plus a surprise little “present” at the end.

Helder walks you through the first remarkable “trick” – and that was the point at which my very slippery deck of cards spilled onto the floor, so I was unable to play along. But thank heaven, I could observe him and hear the oohs and ahhs and applause from the others in the audience. You’re not just watching him, you’re being given instructions on how to do what he is doing so you, personally, can accomplish the “magic.”

The big reveal is mind-bending; you’ve just watched it, you’ve done it yourself following his instructions, but you still have no idea how it actually happened. A little later, some cards you’ve set aside will come into play again (but not for me!).

WORDS AND CARDS

He shares more storytelling about his time with his grandfather and about the collection his grandfather keeps by steaming stamps off postcards sent by friends from all over the world, and we also learn about his grandfather’s fascination with word puzzles. This leads to Helder pulling a number out of a goblet, unwrapping it and calling on the person who holds that number.

Now we see how he works with words, rather than cards. He quizzes the person, and with very little information identifies the word they’re thinking about. Again, there’s astonished noise from the Zoom crowd. And throughout most of the performance, the mics are hot and audience reaction is encouraged.

I did get to play one little game with him solo. I’m guessing the house manager—whom I’d alerted via the Zoom “chat” function that I’d spilled my deck—somehow got him to connect with me; although it WAS my number he pulled out of the glass, I feel almost certain that a little sleight of hand may have been involved! My mind was sufficiently blown that it almost made up for not getting to participate in the main tricks.

We’re getting to the part of the show that will leave you completely aghast – and I simply cannot reveal any of this to you without giving away the surprises. But believe me – you’d be completely astounded.

It’s a touching show, especially as Helder didn’t understand his grandfather until after his death, and he learned much more about him when his father handed him the stack of postcards (from which he’d steamed the stamps) sent over decades that grandfather collected and kept. And it’s a plea for understanding that this time will pass and there is much we can make of it, if we choose to do so.

On the slightest off-chance that another extension will be offered, the only thing you can do is click to be notified if additional performances are added: https://www.geffenplayhouse.org/shows/the-present/

Sarah A. Spitz is an award-winning public radio producer, retired from KCRW, where she also produced arts stories for NPR. She writes features and reviews for various print and online publications.

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