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Entertainment & Arts

Geffen Playhouse has a hit Zoom magic show. How its star makes social distance vanish

Helder Guimarães created the Zoom-based illusion and theater show "The Present" for the Geffen Playhouse.
Helder Guimarães created the Zoom-based illusion and theater show “The Present” for the Geffen Playhouse.
(Dania Maxwell / Los Angeles Times)

Put on your best little black dress and get ready for an evening out — on your sofa. It’s date night 2020 and love (and, ahem, coronavirus) is in the air. You won’t be going to the theater this evening, or any evening soon, but thanks to the Geffen Playhouse and magician Helder Guimarães, the theater is coming to you.

The show is called “The Present,” and it’s presented live via Zoom to 25 households at a time. The nine shows per week have sold out through Aug. 16, making “The Present” a local phenom — all the while proving that virtual performances featuring socially distanced audiences can, in fact, feel communal.

Many have speculated what theater of the future will look like, and while that remains unclear, Guimarães and the Geffen’s view-from-home programming, dubbed the Geffen Stayhouse, has shed light on what the theater of now can look like.

It turns out the present, as illuminated by “The Present,” isn’t so bad after all. The key to the show, Guimarães said — how it accomplishes that transcendent feeling of togetherness provided by the best live experiences — is interactivity.

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“If this social distance vanishes for a short time, I will have done my job,” Guimarães says at the beginning of the show, which is directed by the Academy Award-nominated producer and director Frank Marshall, whose storied career includes films in the “Indiana Jones,” “Bourne” and “Jurassic Park” franchises.

Erasing the social distance between the digital boxes of Zoom is, in fact, the grand illusion of a show filled with jaw-dropping illusions.

Guimarães explained the trick during a phone interview shortly after opening night: In the world of teleconferencing programs, the screen becomes the fourth wall. In “The Present” he manages to break that fourth wall by speaking to his audience about this moment in history we are experiencing together and by asking the audience to participate in the magic he is performing.

A crucial component of “The Present” is a small box mailed to audience members before the show. They are instructed to not open it until the performance has started. The contents of the box are then used by the audience members, with careful instruction by Guimarães, to create the magic tricks inside their own homes.

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Their reactions — frequently sheer joy and wonder — are partly what makes “The Present” so remarkable. Guimarães is watching the audience through his screen, just as they are watching him and one another. It’s a meta mind-bender that yields delightfully communal results.

“When the show begins, I’m very aware of the medium I am using,” Guimarães said. “But as the show keeps going, little by little, everyone forgets that they are alone or that they are seeing that screen.”

Enabling the audience to forget the medium requires quite a bit of behind-the-scenes derring-do so a complicated experience appears seamless, Marshall said.

Helder Guimarães in the Geffen Stayhouse production of, 'The Present,' directed by Frank Marshall.
Helder Guimarães in the Geffen Stayhouse production of “The Present,” directed by Frank Marshall.
(The Geffen Playhouse)
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“We were all doing it in email and on Zoom and trying to arrange the camera and audio and set and wardrobe and then rehearse the show,” Marshall said. “It was a little bit of what I guess the early days of live TV were like. It’s on the fly; it’s in the moment.”

The show, which features a theatrical retelling of Guimarães’ experience in quarantine as a child after a debilitating accident, is packed with subtle technical accomplishments made in less than a month: staff (in gloves and masks) dropping off equipment at Guimarães’ apartment, securing permission from Zoom to broadcast in HD, ensuring Guimarães had the fastest internet connection possible, making certain that lighting and sound were top-notch, set-decorating the corner of Guimarães’ apartment used for the show, carefully tracking technical cues and more.

Guimarães’ fiancee, Catarina Marques, who is sheltering in place with Guimarães, serves as the show’s camera operator. Marshall was meticulous about how the camera is used to make the magic as impactful as possible. A single camera zooms and tilts on Guimarães’ hands and cards but does not cut away, so the audience can see there is no manipulation — no edits, no special effects, no faking of the tricks.

“Necessity is the mother of invention,” Marshall said. “We looked for ways we could use the platform to enhance the storytelling and the show.”

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Then there are the logistics of getting those boxes of props in the mail to audience members.

“We’re running a wartime-level production workshop at the Geffen, rolling out boxes instead of tanks,” said the Geffen’s artistic director, Matt Shakman. “Everyone is in separate rooms and working separate shifts, putting together everything box by box, and getting them out in a timely manner.”

Shakman is grateful that in “The Present” his team at the Geffen has found a way to keep creating theater at a time when traditional performing arts in America have shuddered to a halt. He too feels interactivity is key to the show’s success, but he is careful to say the approach won’t work for all forms of theater.

“This particular show was a real miracle, lightning in a bottle, but I don’t think I could reproduce it right away,” he said.

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And even though “The Present” is selling out tickets at $125 per household (increased from $85), the much-needed funds won’t stanch the financial bleeding wrought by the theater’s closure, Shakman said. The audience limit of 25 households — to preserve the show’s intimate, interactive feeling — makes profitability impossible.

Even with sellout audiences, the number of people who will see “The Present” through mid-August will be about the same as for a normal six-week run at the 661-seat main stage, he said.

Still, Shakman is grateful for every little bit of support — and magic — “The Present” can bring, he said.

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As for Guimarães, he never stops being thrilled and touched by a moment at the end of the show (which we will not spoil) when the audience takes part in a trick together and shows the results to one another and to Guimarães.

“Those moments when something unexpected happens, and this happens in their own hands, are, for me, so important,” he said. “It’s a privilege to see people having those reactions, and sharing their feelings with me and others.”

For the audience, the privilege is also those moments, however fleeting, when they get to feel the joy of being together, even while they are apart.

'The Present'
Where: Geffen Stayhouse virtual theater via Zoom

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; extended through Aug. 16

Tickets: $125 per household but sold out for all announced performances. To get alerts about additional show dates and ticket sales, go to the Geffen website and click on “The Present,” then “Notify me.”

Info: (310) 208-2028 or geffenplayhouse.org

Running time: 1 hour, 10 minutes (no intermission)
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