The experience of The Present, the first fully virtual production from the Geffen Playhouse (currently dubbed “Geffen Stayhouse”) in Los Angeles, begins days before the performance when you receive a mysterious box in the mail. Over the last two months, as theaters around the world have shut down and most of us have sheltered in place at home as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic, performers have found many ways to adapt and continue to share their art. I personally have enjoyed live-streamed performances of Michael Urie’s Buyer & Cellar and the short-lived Broadway cult hit Significant Other from the comfort of my apartment, grateful to experience shows I might have otherwise missed.
But with The Present, the Geffen has taken the concept of virtual theater even further. I love live theater because each performance is a wholly unique moment that can never and will never be replicated. For someone like myself who enjoys that prompt to focus and appreciate something that can never be revisited, live streams do not quite achieve that effect. Most can be paused or rewound, stay up for at least 24 hours, reach a much larger audience than the typical physical space supports, and are watched alone in a vacuum. But the Geffen has successfully recreated, at least as much as possible, the full theatergoing experience, beginning with a virtual lobby. The house manager unmutes households one by one to check everyone in, and there’s even ambient elevator music. Pour yourself a glass of wine that is inevitably cheaper than typical theater concessions and flip through the video thumbnails of the strangers who compose your fellow audience members—you will almost feel like you’re back in a physical theater. I even recognized a fellow critic in the “crowd” on Zoom as I waited for the show to begin. Some patrons dressed to the nines for the experience and the audience is unmuted for the majority of the show, allowing everyone to hear applause and reactions. This really enhanced the communal feeling, and considering the regularly astonishing content of the performance, there was plenty to react to.
Written and performed by Helder Guimarães, a Portuguese-born professional magician, The Present consists of a series of interactive magic tricks tied together with a poignant and relevant narrative. As a child, Guimarães survived a bad car accident and ended up in his own version of quarantine as he recovered at the home of his enigmatic grandfather. It was during this time that he first fell in love with magic, spending hours each day experimenting with a deck of cards. The virtual audience for each performance consists of 25 households, and everyone got to participate at least briefly. If the concept of participation frightens you, as it often does me, rest assured I only had to speak about four words the one time I was called upon, although one or two households ended up involved in the show in more complex ways. Directed by Frank Marshall, the production design is, of course, simple, although it is clear that great thought and care was put into the camera work and lighting design (consultant Daniel Ionazzi) of Guimarães’s set-up.
Technologically, everything ran remarkably smoothly, an impressive feat at a time when problem-ridden video conferences seem omnipresent. The only requirements for participating are a free Zoom account and a stable internet connection, and the interactive elements will be easiest to enjoy if you are sitting at a table or surface for when you are prompted to unpack the contents of the box. The show is currently open to anyone in the United States, with weekend matinee showtimes that will better accommodate east coast patrons, and one ticket allows your whole household to participate, as long as everyone shares one device.
Guimarães is a magnetic performer. Inevitably, one’s own home houses more potential distractions than a theater, but I felt mesmerized for the entirety of the 70-minute show. In fact, there is something even more impressive about pulling off a successful trick when the participants are spread out across the country and left to their own devices, with far less opportunity for observation and manipulation than at a typical magic show. But if even magic can work on this virtual platform, it gives me hope for the kind of innovation we will surely see in the coming months as theater companies figure out ways to continue to safely serve an audience. To me, the real theme of The Present is resilience—of Guimarães as a child, recovering from a terrifying accident and finding comfort in magic, of the creative team thinking outside the box and putting together this logistical triumph, and of the audience, opening their minds to a kind of show they likely would have scoffed at just a few short months ago. In the end, it is hard to say what was more magical—the mystifying tricks Guimarães performs, or simply the feeling of having a true theater experience again.
A new block of tickets for The Present goes on sale Monday, May 18th at 10am PST for performances through August 16th. Thus far, each block of tickets released has sold out very quickly, and this one will surely be no exception. Tickets are $85 per household and can be purchased here. For FAQs regarding technical requirements and the logistics of the experience, click here.