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What do you picture when you hear the word magician? Maybe David Copperfield. Or a birthday party.
"Magic suffers from the people who do magic," Derek DelGaudio says.
DelGaudio and Helder Guimarães, two of the world's best young card magicians, are trying to change such perceptions with their show Nothing to Hide, which opens October 23 and runs through December 8 at the Signature Center. The duo brings the show to New York from the Geffen Playhouse, one of Los Angeles's most respected theaters, where it became a hit and extended its run several times.
Nothing to Hide features some mind-bending illusions, but its popularity stems mostly from the fact that DelGaudio and Guimarães aim to do something more than fool people: They want to raise magic from a craft to an art, from something nerdy to something cool.
They want to make magic that means something—magic that, like art or poetry, relates to the real world.
How does one create a meaningful illusion? One routine in Nothing to Hide involves Guimarães doing a card trick and then DelGaudio performing the same trick, reciting the same script. The second time, the expectations of the crowd and the connotations of the words have shifted. Audience members think they know what's coming because they've just seen it—and then they don't.
The routine examines issues like how preconceptions can change an experience, or how shifting context can change the meaning of language. There's no explicit message—but a good artist doesn't have to make his intentions explicit.
"We don't discuss the idea openly—they feel it, which is more interesting than saying, 'You know what, this [trick] is about preconceptions,'" Guimarães explains.
If a trick is successful, DelGaudio adds, "They're not asking themselves how that happens. They ask themselves deeper questions."
In another card routine, called "chess," they two face off against each other in a sleight-of-hand battle. There is no dialogue, and yet the audience can understand exactly what illusions are taking place (and often starts cheering).
"That's all of life in that piece," DelGaudio says. "It's our lives. It's reality. It's dreams—in the sense of what people dream [magicians] do—brought to life."
DelGaudio and Guimarães are not the first magicians to think this way. Penn and Teller, for instance, are among the most popular illusionists of our time, using humor to upend typical magic conventions and challenge audiences to rethink aspects of the world at large. Sometimes they reveal the methods behind their tricks, as a way of calling out magic as entertainment and questioning the value of secrecy. DelGaudio and Guimarães use magic to explore the same kinds of concerns, but in their own fashion.
"I think they're the two greatest young sleight-of-hand magicians working today," Penn Jillette says in an e-mail, "not because they do unbelievable tricks, which they do, and not just because their technique is better than anyone else's, which it is, but because they are charming and not saccharine, funny but not cute, artistic but not pretentious.
"Most importantly, they are trying to say that what they do is important."
Seeing one or two magicians perform a fully formed, 70-minute show is an anomaly—especially the intimate, close-up card tricks that form the core of Nothing to Hide.
New York is home to only a handful of respected magic shows. Steve Cohen performs for small audiences at the Waldorf Astoria. A group of magicians runs Monday Night Magic at the Players Theatre in Greenwich Village. This month, the Conjuring Arts Research Center, a magic library, has been hosting a few well-known magicians at the Axis Theater on Sheridan Square. Nothing to Hide, though, is perhaps most comparable to Ricky Jay's off-Broadway shows at Second Stage, directed by David Mamet, the last of which took place in 2002.
"In America," says Guimarães, "the live shows are dominated by musicals or stand-up specials by comedians or music or concerts, and there's no space to do one full evening show of magic. Those opportunities are not as common as in Europe."
Guimarães grew up in Portugal, where his first performance involved assisting his magician father. He began traveling to Madrid several times a year to study with Juan Tamariz, a legendary Spanish card magician. Guimarães pushed his illusions toward the impossible. What if an audience volunteer signed a blank white card and then, after the signed card was involved in a series of tricks, it were to morph into a signed playing card—the same card the volunteer had named earlier?
He created precisely such a routine, and in Stockholm in 2006, at age 23, he won first place in the close-up card category at the World Championships of Magic. Some performers backstage were so stunned, they thought the volunteer was a stooge. To convince the panel he hadn't cheated, Guimarães swore a judge to secrecy and explained how it was done. He also re-created the trick using a volunteer chosen by the panel.
After winning a coveted prize at such a young age, offers for gigs poured in. Guimarães released DVDs of his work. "I was unknown in the magic community and, one day to another, I became known," he says now.