A box is delivered to your doorstep with instructions not to open it until showtime. The show is “The Present,” illusionist Helder Guimarães’ runaway hit on Zoom, which has just announced an extended run through October 10. It sold out The Geffen Stayhouse — not the playhouse, but its virtual programming platform during quarantine — and has now been extended thrice. It could be described as live theater that comes to you, but some might call “The Present” enhanced television. Others might say it’s theater-television, or is it something else?
“Every time something new is created, I don't think the people creating it have a definition for it. History and time will be in charge of naming what we are doing,” Guimarães tells KCET. What he is doing is blowing minds with card tricks that viewers complete at home using a deck and a mysterious box of materials delivered to ticket buyers. Admission is $85 per link and audiences are limited to 25 participants.
“There is a quality in this that I don't feel belongs to the universe of television or movies. There is a theatrical quality to this,” Guimarães continues. “Because of the situation we’re in, we have to broaden the definition of theater, or understand what makes theater interesting and provide those elements to create something that even if it's not theater still has those elements.”
Director Frank Marshall, legendary producer of such films as “Raiders of the Lost Ark” and “Jurassic Park,” is a five-time Oscar nominee for Best Picture. In 2019 the 73-year-old veteran and his wife and partner, Kathleen Kennedy, were honored with the Irving Thalberg Award. He directed Guimarães in last year’s “Invisible Tango,” also at the Geffen, but is directing “The Present” from home while the illusionist performs from his Glendale apartment where they built a set and Guimarães’ fiance, Catarina Marques, acts as camerawoman.
Marshall is glad to be directing again, but as a producer of Broadway hits like “Escape to Margaritaville” and more recently, “Diana,” which began previews March 2 then stopped with the pandemic, he’s anxious to be back in a theater with a live audience. “I don’t know how you get things in a place where people feel comfortable sitting with a thousand people in a theater. Unless we have a vaccine or treatment in place, I think we are severely limited by how many people will be in a room together,” he ruminates. “It's a little bit easier on the movie exhibition side than in live theater ‘cause live theater really depends on the audience reaction. And you also have the actors on the stage; everybody has to feel safe. In a movie, you can probably social distance people.”
If theater is being transformed during the pandemic, the most obvious change is from light to dark as Broadway is closed until at least January, likewise L.A. theaters. The Geffen is planning a cabaret show this October in the smaller Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater with proper social distancing observed, but is in the process of rescheduling its original production of “Macbeth” starring “Game Of Thrones” actor Nikolaj Coster-Waldau, as well as another illusion show, “The Enigmatist.” Among the highlights of its 2021 slate is Matthew Lopez’s critically-acclaimed two-part gay-themed epic, “The Inheritance.”
The Geffen’s success with “The Present” can in part be attributed to the fact that the audience isn’t limited to Los Angeles, but to anyone anywhere with a computer and a credit card. The surprise revenue stream during such uncertain times is a blessing to artistic director Matt Shakman.
“We’re thinking of running it as long as they all have the energy to do it and people want to see it,” he says, adding that the Geffen benefitted from the Small Business Administration Paycheck Protection Program and has been in close touch with its foundation support. “The longer it takes us to get back to business, the harder and harder it will be.”
In spite of it all, Shakman is two things: curious and optimistic. Curious to see that kind of writing comes out of the quarantine experience, and optimistic that things will return to normal soon enough. “There were certainly plagues in Athens, there were plagues in the Elizabethan Era, and Shakespeare and some of the great Greek plays came out of those periods and have stood the test of time. I’m excited for the future and optimistic for a return to a communal experience.”
Guimarães has been selling out shows at the Geffen and off-Broadway since 2013, earning enough street cred to train Sandra Bullock and Cate Blanchett for their sleight of hand in the movie “Ocean's 8.” It took a different kind of sleight of hand to connect with an audience despite social distancing, but he’s satisfied “The Present” does exactly that. “Overall the show talks a lot about the way we connect with each other. In that, I'm extremely proud of what we created,” he says with a shrug, still undecided whether it’s theater or something else, adding, “I’m not worried about what to call it.”
Top Image: Helder Guimarães in the Geffen Stayhouse production of The Present, directed by Frank Marshall. | Geffen Playhouse