Virtual Theater Review: THE PRESENT (Geffen Stayhouse a.k.a. Geffen Playhouse)

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by Marc Wheeler on May 20, 2020

in Theater-Los Angeles,Theater-Regional


Even after postponing the remaining productions of their 2019/2020 season due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the Geffen Playhouse is forging ahead. While the UCLA-owned theater has high hopes for their upcoming 25th-anniversary season, let’s be honest: futures for any theater are being made with cautious optimism. Wearing the resilient adage “the show must go on” like a face mask, the Geffen Playhouse has created Geffen Stayhouse, a cheekily-titled virtual platform where “Theater, At Home” survives through home computers and smartphones. Amid social distancing orders, the Geffen has mounted a one-man-show written and performed by master illusionist Helder Guimarães. The Present is not only the Geffen’s first full virtual production, it’s a gift from — and for — our brave new world.

Under the direction of Frank Marshall (who also directed Guimarães in Invisible Tango at the Geffen last year), The Present is an intermissionless, 70-minute magic act performed virtually through video conferencing. In it, the Portuguese-born illusionist and storyteller weaves a narrative of his own childhood quarantine as a parallel to our current stay-at-home reality. Looking into a camera lens, a sincere Guimarães recounts the joys of magic he discovered and the quality time he spent with his grandfather in isolation. The work consists of card tricks and other illusions, eliciting how’d he do that! reactions to the magician’s sleight-of-hand mastery. Through his poignant storytelling and childlike charm, however, Guimarães sneaks up on his audience with emotional bits by tapping into our collective fragility in these dizzying times.

Though attendees may be miles — even states — apart, group interaction is part of the experience. Guimarães communicates with the audience, seeking answers to questions and selecting individuals to assist him. In order to replicate (as much as possible) an in-person experience, personal mics on the Zoom platform are frequently turned on for reactions and applause, allowing the magician and audience to feed off one another throughout the show. Attendance is capped at 25 households per performance. While everyone and their surroundings (no virtual backgrounds allowed) are visible throughout the show, attendees are encouraged to put their settings to “speaker mode” in order to make the illusionist and his magic their central focus.

Production values are lean. Guimarães is plainly-dressed and well-lit. A single camera captures his act with simple pans, tilts, and dolly shots. The set consists of a table and chair in the corner of what appears to be an office, with a few surrounding items. There are no wardrobe or scenic changes, nor in-house performers with whom to interact. As a token of participation, however, a “mystery box” is mailed to each attending household prior to the performance, the contents of which are not to be revealed until mid-show.

With ticket prices now raised from $85 to $125 a household, it’s certainly not cheap entertainment, especially considering its relatively short running time, virtual presentation via home computer, and minimal production design. At a time of widespread layoffs, access is limited. That said, it’s enjoyable, and its novelty as an emerging art form in reaction to these unprecedented times is significant. But the fact that its second extension sold out in under 30 minutes, however, suggests something bigger is at play. Sure, people may be bored at home looking for something different to do. But I suspect — or at least hope — our collective situation has reminded people of theater’s necessity, and they’re rallying to save it as an invisible force threatens to shutter so many of its houses.

We can debate whether or not virtual performance is “theater.” We can explore what’s disappeared, what’s currently taking its place, and what we envision our theatrical world returning to or becoming. Ultimately, however, we’re seeking meaningful ways to connect and be entertained. In that sense, The Present is not only a spirited offering in these uncertain times, it’s a reminder to embrace what is — if only for now.

photos by Jeff Lorch

The Present
Geffen Stayhouse (a.k.a. Geffen Playhouse in Los Angeles)
Tues-Fri at 8; Sat at 3 & 8; Sun at 2 & 7 (all times PST)
70 minutes | ends on July 5, 2020 EXTENDED to August 16, 2020 (currently Sold Out)
EXTENDED to October 10, 2020
for tickets ($85-$125 per household), call 310.208.2028 or visit Geffen
given the unique nature and logistics of this production,
tickets must be purchased at least 10-14 days in advance of any given performance date

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