Just as his name, Helder Guimarães, defies easy spelling, so, too, does his one-man-show defy conventional explanation.
Yes, it’s a magic show. But with so much humor, charm and clever observations about life, it’s clear from the start that “Verso,” which recently opened Off-Broadway at New World Stages and runs through Jan. 15, is about way more than magic.
Raised in Porto, Portugal, and now living in Los Angeles, Guimarães (pronounced ghee-MAH-ress), 33, is considered one of the world’s greatest “close-up” magicians, which puts him in a different category from boffo stuntmeisters like David Blaine and Criss Angel. With his red frames and impish grin, he strolls the stage as if in his living room, chatting about old family legends or the thrill of risk-taking. At the same time, his fingers are dancing over decks of cards and choreographing tricks that’ll have some audience members racing around the theater to assist him, or shouting out in astonishment.
Known for quirky how’d-he-do-that YouTube videos (and an intriguing TED Talk), Guimarães last appeared in New York in 2013’s acclaimed “Nothing to Hide,” directed by Neil Patrick Harris.
You were hit by a car when you were 12 and almost died. That must’ve been . . . terrifying.
Yeah. I was in coma for three days. After that I woke up . . . and was fine.
I was crossing the street. I looked to the side, saw nothing and walked, but I looked the wrong way. I was with my parents, and they were traumatized. I have the memory of crossing the street . . . and later of leaving the hospital. There’s nothing in the middle. I could’ve been dead. I knew then what I really wanted to do was be a magician. Have a life that’s fulfilled, that I’m proud of. The world doesn’t exactly see “magician” as a [worthwhile] career, but this episode convinced me. Because who knows how long we’re here for?
When did you first perform?
In kindergarten. I did a simple trick. I opened a box — it was empty — I closed it, said the magic word, and when I opened it again there were candies inside. I threw the candies to my classmates and was king of the kindergarten for about a week. I never made candies appear again, so . . .
Your popularity waned?
Yeah. But I remember performing, seeing how you can produce emotion in people . . . joy . . . excitement.
Your dad was a magician. Is there something genetic about magic? Something you inherited from him?
He’s probably the most intelligent person I know, and his analytical thinking helped me a lot. And good dexterity, which helps for the type of magic I like — sleight of hand. Those things are genetic. But he taught me a lot, too. He never pushed me to be a magician. Never. He saw I had an interest, and nurtured that. He gave good advice, too. Even today, when I have a problem, he’s the first person I go to. It’s great when your parents are your best friends. That’s how I feel about my father and mother.
Your show is not a typical “magic show.” How do you describe it?
I don’t have a definition for it. It’s not just a magic show — there’s something else. Like when I see Louis CK, for example, not that I’m trying to compare myself with him, but he’s a comedian whose show is not just comedy. He points out subjects that are taboo, makes people think. If you have to define what I do, you’ll call me a magician. And that’s fine. Most magicians don’t commit to the word magic, but I love that word.
They don’t . . . commit?
To some magicians, it’s just entertainment — oh, let’s do a couple of jokes and then a trick. When you reduce magic to just tricks, to me that isn’t very interesting. Look, I believe magic exists. I see it every day. Our society has problems, but we’ve accomplished so much and I think that’s, in a certain sense, magic. And nature — to see a rainbow — that’s pretty cool. Or love, that’s a reflection of what I consider magic to be. I’m creating an experience with the audience that only exists in the moment. That’s where the real magic is.
So if that car accident had never happened, would you be a magician today?
Good question. I don’t know. I’d definitely be doing something creative, because I don’t like to be . . . stable. I love acting, and stand-up comedy. But for me, magic was always my focus. I think at the heart of it there’s this need to . . . put some more magic into the world. Or at least help people see the world with different eyes. With the eyes of someone who believes in magic.