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Culture

In ‘The Present,’ The Magic Tricks Happen in Your House

May 18, 2020 by Juliet Bennett Rylah
‘The Present’ Photo: The Geffen Playhouse

Helder Guimarães’s The Present is a magic show where the tricks occur both online and inside your house, sometimes in your own hands. It may sound like a lot of pressure, and maybe it is. Which is why the “present” you receive is both a mysterious box that arrives by mail and the ability to be, for a little while, in the moment.

The show comes from The Geffen Playhouse, currently going by the moniker The Geffen Stayhouse. The virtual house—perhaps better known as Zoom—only seats 25 households each night. In the days leading up to that night, all audience members receive a box in the mail. Inside the shipping box is another, smaller box, tied with a piece of string. It’s tempting, but you’re not allowed to open it until Guimarães instructs you to do so. Inside are a few props, most of which we’ll leave a secret as it’s absolutely better if you follow instructions and leave the box untouched until the show. 

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Over about 70 minutes, Guimarães weaves an influential story from his childhood with current events and sleight of hand. The story is about his own “quarantine” when he was 11 years old. Following a hospital stay, he was excited to see his friends and resume life as it had been before. However, his doctors required him to stay inside for what must have felt like an eternity to a young boy. With his parents at work, his only daytime companion was his grandfather. Though they’d lived in the same house for some time, Guimarães’s grandfather was practically a stranger to him, one whose odd customs and behaviors he failed to understand. Yet as time went on, the pair began to bond, and Guimarães’s future career as a magician began to take shape. 

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While he tells this story, he performs various tricks. Many of them are card tricks, the likes of which you’ve probably seen before. But what’s truly fascinating is the way he can replicate those tricks while physically distancing. Guimarães provides instructions—such as picking a card or cutting a deck—either for the entire audience or for a “volunteer.” If you don’t follow those instructions, the trick may not manifest for you the way it will for everyone else. 

But sometimes it will. At one point, I realized that the angle of my computer allowed him to see the cards I was holding if I leaned too far into my couch. So I leaned forward and swapped one for another. They were supposed to be my choice, after all. I was convinced I’d somehow messed up some order but was pleasantly surprised when it all worked out just the same. A volunteer forgot which card she’d picked, interrupting the trick to deliberate with herself. It didn’t matter. He still pulled it off. While not all of the tricks in my show were flawless, the ones that were executed perfectly were impressive. There was one trick in particular that blew us all away.

Everyone receives a box in the mail. Photo: The Geffen Playhouse

While the whole Zoom thing can’t entirely replicate what it feels like to physically be at a show, doing tricks in your house is novel enough that I’d probably try it even if I could go out. And there are some added Zoom benefits. For one, a “stage manager” mutes and unmutes guests throughout the night, depending on whether it’s appropriate to talk or react. Unlike in a real theater, if anyone’s being loud, you can just mute them. I have a chatty cat, so I muted myself when she started squeaking. 

You can also see other people’s reactions in a way you can’t in a proscenium theater. Though you’ll watch most of the show in speaker view—meaning Guimarães’s screen is always front and center—you can occasionally toggle to gallery view. That allows you to see everyone’s screens, Brady Bunch-style. Whenever I did, I could see my fellow audience members gasp, laugh, or show us their props. Some screens contained only individuals, while one showed a family of six who’d been staying in the same home together for weeks. All of them seemed fully delighted. 

That’s the thing about The Present and so many of the other virtual offerings we have in this pandemic. You have to be capable of delight. You have to want to be amazed. You have to be willing to tolerate bad connection glitches and things that don’t quite fire. You may not be at that place right now and that’s okay. But if you are, this might be just the kind of whimsical distraction you need.

After selling out twice, The Present has been extended through August 16. Tickets go on sale May 18 at 10 a.m. and are $85 per household. (Meaning you’ll be sent one box and one Zoom link, but anyone you’re staying home with is more than welcome to participate on your ticket.) Click here or call (310) 208-2028 for more info.

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