Before my scheduled preview performance of “The Present,” a new show from the Geffen Playhouse (rebranded as Geffen Stayhouse) in Los Angeles, I received — via FedEx, after a failed delivery from the Postal Service and a series of increasingly panicked emails — a letter with strict instructions. I was to download Zoom and join a meeting 15 minutes before showtime. There would be, bold type informed me, “no late seating.”
On Wednesday, just shy of 11 p.m. (the perils of seeing a California show on New York time), an enthusiastic stage manager checked me in and I took my seat — a rickety Ikea chair in kicking distance of a teetering pile of laundry. My husband sat nearby on the edge of an unmade bed strewn with children’s toys. I had meant to pour a glass of wine, but we’d emptied the last bottle days ago.
“The Present,” created by the Portuguese conjurer Helder Guimarães, is a magic show, and I struggle to imagine a setting and sobriety level less conducive to enchantment. But this is a pandemic. As with bandanna masks and homemade hand sanitizer, we make do.
David Copperfield disappearing the Statue of Liberty and the peculiar success of Criss Angel notwithstanding, magic has always struck me as particularly dependent on liveness — a duel between the nothing-up-my-sleeves hand and the watchful, untrained eye. Put a camera between them, and the odds no longer seem fair. (Video sequences in live shows can feel miscalculated, too, a wrongheaded attempt to scale up what should be intimate, a tryst dressed up as an orgy.)
But last year, while researching the psychological illusionist Derren Brown, I lost several nights, happily, to his old TV series. And routines by the card assassin Ricky Jay — that watermelon! — bear watching on repeat. Knowing remote prestidigitation could work, I spent the two weeks after booking my ticket to “The Present” lurking and squinting and nervously participating online and on the phone, exploring how. The magic word of the moment? Your Wi-Fi login.
I began with Noah Levine, a familiar face beneath a quarantine beard. In “the before” (is that what we’re calling it?), I had twice seen his “Magic After Hours” show at Tannen’s Magic. With the help of the Atlas Obscura and Airbnb platforms, he has now developed “Backstage With a Magician,” in which he promises to perform tricks from his “secret lair,” which looks a lot like a Brooklyn apartment. At showtime, he greeted us in front of a credibility bookcase — “Gravity’s Rainbow,” manuals on card and coin magic, a crystal ball. He has taken to wearing a Nehru jacket. We cope however we can.
“We’re not all in the same room,” he said in his pleasant, froggy voice. “We’re not even all in the same time zone. Ninety percent of the magic I know how to do doesn’t work.” Still, for a mellow, confident hour, he ran me and nine other windows through various illusions, some dazzling.
Levine had performed a few of these back at Tannen’s. But, as with old friends who reappear for Zoom cocktail hour, it was nice to see them again. He also had us do tricks, one involving socks, one using a thimble. If it wasn’t quite the same, what is? “You are the devil!” a flabbergasted Zoom viewer said when Levine managed a nifty bit of prestidigitation. He meant it as a compliment.
Through frantic Googling, I found other entertainments. (I also found the “Magic Men E-Show.” Not magic!) Every Thursday, Harrison Greenbaum and Patrick Davis host “SCAM Online,” a slapdash variety show via Facebook Live, which feels like a cocktail flight that’s all cooking sherry. One night I watched Kayla Drescher pass a rubber band through a bottle of wine. Jonathan Burns did a bit with American cheese as his pajama-clad daughters looked on unimpressed. The next week, also on Facebook Live, Victoria Noquez — math professor by day, conjurer by night — performed sociable card tricks and Sudoku variations, with occasional riffs on prime number theory.
On Zoom, in “Virtual Charms,” I saw a hospitable Joe M. Turner perform a blurry rope trick. “I am improvising with what I have at home, in the basement, in the garage, etc.,” he wrote to me. Alan Hudson, a dapper English illusionist, let me lurk during an otherwise private show in which he changed receipts into 20 pound notes and did unutterable things to a Rubik’s cube while bantering live. “I noticed you weren’t clapping,” he said to one woman. “Sorry, I was eating chocolate,” she said. I also called Jeanette Andrews’s magic hotline and let her soothing prerecorded voice talk me through a D.I.Y. card trick.
“The Present,” which runs through July 5, also asks its audience to make its own magic. And yet, with a stringent ticket allocation — only 25 Zoom logins per performance — it felt more like pre-isolation theater than anything I have encountered in the past two months. (As a theater critic in withdrawal, this was unreasonably exciting.) Each ticket includes a “mystery box” (a nod to Tannen’s Mystery Box, but this one comes with an alcohol wipe), which is sent to your home. Or, in my case, becomes lost in transit. More mystery!
The magician Derek DelGaudio once affectionately described Guimarães as a Portuguese Muppet, which seems apt. Guimarães’s style interleaves illusion and monologue, using silken sleight-of-hand to illustrate metaphoric conceits. In “The Present,” he describes a childhood accident and the time he spent at home after it with his grandfather. The show, mostly anecdotes and card tricks, considers themes of isolation and connection and the differences among fact, fiction and illusion. Card tricks may not need so much narrative scaffolding, but “The Present” mostly bears up under it.
With the backdrop of a bookcase (I spied “1000 Chairs”), a vintage magic poster and gray walls, Guimarães performs in an untucked collared shirt. Though aware of the camera, which tilts down to a baize-covered table for certain bits and back to his face for others, he did not seem bothered by it. Or by much of anything. Even a fellow ticketholder who nearly botched a trick with poor spelling. (Of course lipstick has a “C.”) Sometimes, he outsourced a trick to the crowd, and as I handled waxen playing cards with my clumsy fingers, the dread of screwing up became my own.
Though he told personal stories, he operated with slight reserve, treating the people in the audience more as passing acquaintances than as victims or pals. Still, he pepped up toward the show’s finale, a series of nested reveals in which one wonder bled into the next. And wonder — gape-mouthed, fillings-showing amazement — was what I had come for.
Enjoying magic means welcoming bafflement, committing to feeling dumb. I feel dumb a lot these days. I don’t know when schools will reopen, what work will look like next month, whether my family has had the virus, what I should think or want or do. But after midnight, on my laptop, Guimarães flipped over one named card and then another and another and another and another until each window showed one or more spectators, collectively losing their minds on mute.
I don’t know how he did it. And for the first time in a long time, not knowing felt pretty good.