Helder Guimarães is either a magician posing as a philosopher or a philosopher posing as a magician. But however you classify him, he’s excellent company in his new show, “Invisible Tango,” which opened Wednesday at the Geffen Playhouse’s Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater.
The small stage is set up as a living room, designed by François-Pierre Couture with his customary flair. A wall shelving unit with a record player and a stash of vinyl lends the impression that we’ve been invited into the home of an urban bachelor accustomed to having guests. The mood music played on the turntable is original material from Moby. The lighting by Elizabeth Harper adds to the subtle date-night effect.
Wearing a vest, tie, jeans, sneakers and red glasses, Guimarães looks as though his Tinder profile should read: “Quirky creative professional, half egghead, half cut-up.” His accent is difficult to place. I was imagining Eastern European capitals. An early anecdote involving a friend, a professional clown with a similar philosophical bent, takes place in Buenos Aires. Eventually, he fills us in that he hails from Portugal.
As a rule, Guimarães is in no rush to clear up mysteries. He cultivates them the way a horticulturalist cultivates flowering vines. But he isn’t out to deceive. Or rather deception is put in the service of enlightenment. His mission is to expand our appreciation for what we don’t know and show how that influences our perception.
“What you see is not right or wrong but always part of the whole image.” These words are spelled out on a board of letters that playfully demonstrates the way context and conditions can conceal or reveal what’s been there all along. But with Guimarães there’s always a surplus surprise. Misdirection is the beginning, not the end, of wonder.
His card tricks, performed at a table facing out to the audience, reliably astonish. Theatergoers who are asked to remember their chosen cards have the opportunity to shuffle the deck to their utmost satisfaction. What Guimarães does with these cards only a magician of his caliber can explain. The lay crowd, unable to decide whether the magic is a preternatural feat of memory or a comparatively banal sleight of hand, must surrender to amazement.
These are no simple pick-a-card tricks, mind you. Guimarães deals poker hands and, with a capricious air, determines whether he’d prefer a full house or an inside straight. When he needs to triumph with four of a kind, he’s not showy. He opts for a low number, knowing he can conjure a quartet of aces whenever he needs them.
He makes order out of shuffled chaos, which he respects as a loyal friend. But nothing is guaranteed: He sustains suspense by keeping open the possibility that perhaps this time his powers will desert him and humiliation will notch a win.
While mesmerizing his audiences with an array of manipulative miracles, he charms them with tales of a different kind of magic from his life. Tales of the uncanny, you could call them. Told after a minor car accident in L.A. that everything happens for a reason, he’s dubious and understandably annoyed. But his stories, one of which involves a fellow magician’s enigmatic journal found at an antique shop, converge with the same mathematical reliability as his illusions.
“Invisible Tango,” directed with genial polish by Hollywood film producer Frank Marshall, might please a theater sensibility such as mine more if the balance between anecdotes and old-fashioned magic tricks were adjusted slightly in favor of narrative. But Guimarães makes good on his show’s title by fostering a communion with his partner, the audience, who by the end accepts the notion that treasuring mysteries may be even more important than cracking them.
Where: Geffen Playhouse’s Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater, 10886 Le Conte Ave., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 3 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays. (Call for exceptions.) Ends June 30.
Information: (310) 208-5454 or geffenplayhouse.org