Thoughts on An Evening with Guimarães & DelGaudio

(Reprint of an article by Chris Philpott, published in the October 2012 issue of Magic
Posted 7/15/2013)

The white hot magic show here in Los Angeles this summer — actually, this year, and I’ve heard more than one magic aficionado describe it as the best show they’ve ever seen at the Magic Castle — is hands-down An Evening with Guimarães & DelGaudio, which played an encore run of four Tuesday nights in August and September. The inner circle of the magic world was abuzz with its greatness. Ricky Jay came one night. Mac King flew in between Vegas shows to see it; R. Paul Wilson flew in from Britain. The first night I went to see it, I lined up for over an hour, sure I’d get in, only to be crestfallen to see the last-minute pre-seating of David Blaine and his posse. And his posse’s posse.

When I finally got to see the show the next week, I got there ridiculously early with two friends and a stiff drink. Partway through our wait, our conversation was interrupted by thunderous applause and cheering emanating from the Peller theater. They’re overdoing it a bit, aren’t they? I thought to myself. Have they never seen a magic show before? Then the room disgorged its patrons, and I saw a line of just about every magician I’ve ever seen perform at the Castle. And some even brought their wives!

Clearly this was big. So big, the bigness of it was in danger of getting out of control, creating a supernova of expectations that would inevitably collapse into a black hole of disappointment. The bigness was becoming the elephant in the room. My friends — who’d both already seen the show and had been adamant that I come back to see it — started trying to tone down my sky-high expectations by saying things like, “Well, you know, when all is said and done, it’s just a magic show.” Sweet of them, really, the lying bastards.

The show, by FISM winner and Magic Castle Parlor Magician of the year Helder Guimarães and Magic Castle Close-Up Magician of the Year Derek DelGaudio, is stunning. It’s one of those moments you can feel the slow, steady tectonic drift of the art of magic lurch forward and decimate a village, leaving homeless magicians wandering the streets in a daze, holding out their Egg Bags for hand-outs. It’s so good that — if I may be honest — it’s kind of irritating. It’s envy good.

Let me just stop right here and say that if you’re expecting a blow-by-blow description of the show, you’ve come to the wrong place. Check out Mike Caveney’s article, “Helder & Derek,” in the August issue of this magazine.

So if I’m not describing the show, what’s left to talk about?

Well, let me start with the furniture. When you enter the theater, there are two chairs and a table center stage. The chairs are on either side of the table, facing each other.

I’m going to pause for a moment to let that sink in. Please imagine me giving a knowing look and inhaling dramatically. Now think of me holding up a finger as if to say, “I’ll get to that in a moment, but first I have to explain something.”

There is always a competitive element to magic — the “I can fool you!” and “No, you can’t!” competition between magician and audience. As Teller says, “The magic show is a competition. The audience is trying to figure you out. They aren’t suspending their disbelief — they’re trying to expose you as a scam artist.”

Card magic tends to distill this quality. Card magicians are more likely to portray themselves as “charming cheats” who rely on skill rather than wizards invoking the awe-inspiring powers of the cosmos. A card magician generally doesn’t ask you to “believe” in anything more than his or her mastery of the craft. They rarely aim to instill a childlike sense of wonder in their audience and usually “engage them in a permanent maze of possibilities,” to borrow Adam Gopnik’s wonderful phrase. After a performance, a spectator is more likely to say “I’d hate to play cards with you” than “If I had to cross the mines of Moria, would you come with?” A card magician’s persona is more likely to be indebted to Dai Vernon and Martin Nash than Doug Henning (he said, subtly representing for Canada).

Perhaps this is because most people associate playing cards with, well, playing. Cards are all about competition. And in card games, you generally face your opponent, so when a card magician sits opposite the people in his audience, he is automatically setting them up as adversaries.

But when Helder and Derek take the stage, they sit down facing each other, with their sides to the audience. This subtly signals a change of dynamic: this show isn’t about magician vs. audience — it’s magician vs. magician.

And it’s a freaking brilliant idea: a competition between two card sharps has inherent drama and interest, and it feels unforced because it flows naturally out of our associations with cards. But it’s also cool because it takes the heat off of the audience: our job is not to catch the magician’s finger-flinging shenanigans; our job is to sit back, relax, and enjoy the show.

When a card worker does some sort of repetitive effect, the competitive nature of the trick is heightened. Good magicians are well aware of this; think of the way Tommy Wonder or Daryl make the Ambitious Card into a playful game of “Try to catch me!” Audiences are very quick to pick up on the competition: if the magician cuts to one Ace, he signals he’s probably going to cut to three more, and that’s three more chances for the spectator to catch him.

The challenge heightens the magician’s prestige when he succeeds, but it also puts pressure on the audience. If you’re listening to a singer perform a song, you’re not trying to catch him, you’re just enjoying the show. But watching a card magic show, you’re automatically put in a challenge situation whether you asked for it or not: who’s going to win this — the magician or you?

As it turns out, the first effect in Helder and Derek’s show is about as repetitive as you can get. Instead of just cutting to the Aces, each magician cuts to an entire suit in order, from Ace to King. Essentially, between Derek and Helder, we are seeing the same effect 26 times in a row! And yet, like a really fine theme and variations, the last thing on anyone’s mind is the repetition or any sense that we have to catch them before it’s all over. The effect is staged with a chess clock between them. Each revelation is punctuated with a sharp ca-thunk as one sharper triumphantly hits the button. Each card location is more stylish and astonishing than the last, as each magician tries to outdo (and fool) his adversary. If these each of two masters doesn’t know how the other is doing it, how can we mere mortals be expected to?

Of course, we realize instantly that this is all theater and we are witnessing a play unfold in front of us. But this isn’t an attempt to create a classic play with magical elements; this is very much contemporary theater, where the actors drift easily into and out of their characters at a moment’s notice. It is playful in its segues and surprises. The formal elements move to the forefront — as in an effect where the same text is recited twice, once by each magician — and then are dismissed. Even their characters, the two testosterone-fueled sharpers in perpetual competition, only really come out in the first and last effect. To paraphrase Robert-Houdin, these are magicians playing actors playing magicians.

There is a boundary-busting quality to their work that is thrilling to watch. While the first effect embraces the magician-as-skilled-sleight-of-hand-artist idea, it also kind of explodes it. After you cut to 26 cards (and then there’s a kicker!), really, what is left to do? Well, for Helder and Derek the answer seems to be to push on past into that other type of magic — the awe and wonder kind — and it’s no accident that their next three effects include props (wine glasses and a cigar box) that seem to undercut the sleight-of-hand explanation for their effects. One of these effects (the one with the box) is so odd and seemingly impossible that it’s more unsettling than most Bizarrist effects. And the final trick of the show, in which they return to a classic card plot (the Card to Pocket) and a competitive premise, plays like a neat twist on a standard — until the final kicker, which seems so utterly impossible that it catapults the effect and the audience into the stratosphere. No wonder it gets the applause it does.

I spoke with an older, very esteemed magician after the show and, while he really liked it, he had reservations. “There was no emotion.” I had to disagree; there is a ton of emotion in this piece, it’s just all young man emotion: rivalry, anger, envy, swagger. I remember those feelings well.

The show is a perfect example of how desire can sustain a long magic show. This is the essence of all drama: your protagonist wants something, something prevents him from getting it, and in the end he gets it (most genres) or doesn’t (tragedy). Here, of course the two men want to find the chosen card or solve any other problem that develops along the way. But as good as the tricks are, they are subservient to the broader goal of being better than the other guy, a goal that finds satisfying resolution not by talking it out and resolving problems, but in the best Hollywood guy-film way: through simple, clear actions.

It also gives the show a lot of its humor. There’s nothing inherently funny about a magician saying, “I’m going to shuffle the f--- out of these cards,” but give that line to a card sharp as he’s looking over his shoulder at another card sharp who is also shuffling, and it’s hilarious. The characterizations, loose and fleeting as they are, allow the magicians to jettison the overused one-liners that dominate so much magic and replace them with situational humor. The opening routine is funny as hell, even though there isn’t a word spoken.

The subtext of a lot of magic — and I’d argue this is especially true of sleight-of-hand card magic — is “Damn, I’m good!” This is not necessarily a bad thing. Who hasn’t looked at a showpiece performance of a great actor, singer, or dancer and marveled at the sheer skill? Of course, most great roles, songs, and dances have more going on in them than the show-offy bits; there is almost always strong emotional content as well.

That is sadly not often the case with magic. Card magic, though full of moves, is seldom moving. Of course there are exceptions. Jerome Finley’s handling of Paul Harris’ Twilight Angels springs to mind. But the exceptions seem to form a small subset of the vast literature of card magic. This is another reason why the competition between these two young men is such a great idea: it creates an emotional context to go along with the “Damn, I’m good” show-offery.

It’s more than a little ironic that this show, which relieves the audience of the pressure of feeling that they have to figure out how the effects are done, is also one of the foolingest shows I’ve ever seen. It sent me and my buddies off into the dark corners of the Castle to pick apart the effects like particle physicists poring over strange results. I met one of these friends the next week for coffee to discuss the show again, and while the artistry was discussed at length, at least as much time was spent trying to see if we could figure out how the tricks worked.

There’s a common saying in magic: “Don’t run if you’re not being chased.” But the thing is, we’re all being chased. The art of magic is chasing us, our peers are chasing us, history is chasing us. And we in turn have the elusive carrot of greatness dangling in front of our faces. Whether we choose to reach for it or not is one of the decisions that defines us. Helder Guimarães and Derek DelGaudio have chosen to run that race. And, it seems to me, they’re winning.

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