Dismiss it as a gimmick. Or a genius stunt. Or praise it as a metaphor for recovery. In any case, if you ask Matt Shakman he’ll tell you that he wanted to help deliver a wake-up call to audiences — a positive signal at a time when ticket buyers have fallen into a state of slumber. Hence the arrival of The Present, a riveting interactive Zoom magic show produced by the Geffen Theater Group (reviewed by Deadline on May 27).
Shakman, artistic director of the Geffen, has lately delivered wake-up calls in other arenas as well, exhibiting a propensity for innovative and obstreperous humor. In so doing, he has displayed the sort of versatility that may be required of filmmakers hoping to break through in the post-pandemic epoch.
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In directing the pilot of Hulu’s The Great, Shakman hilariously vandalized the reign of Catherine the Great –- a satiric counter-narrative to HBO’s ponderous biopic starring Helen Mirren. Shakman, 45, also directed two hyper-caffeinated episodes of Game of Thrones, and is prepping a project with the Russo brothers about the mysterious techie firm Cambridge Analytica, which imploded after harvesting Facebook data for political fodder.
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At the Geffen, Shakman has enlivened a once-stolid theater agenda with rule-breaking musical shows like Black Superhero Mama Magic, whose comic book tropes are boisterously positioned against real-world police shootings. Created by newcomer Inda Craig-Galvan, the show was shrewdly positioned at the Geffen adjacent to one-act plays by such mainstays as Eugene O’Neill and Samuel Becket.
To be sure, the Geffen is now shut tight by the pandemic, as is the entire theater community. The Present thus represents a sort of defiance of the shutdown, announcing that “the show must still go on,” albeit in living rooms. The limited audiences buying tickets to the show may invite guests to their homes, together unwrapping their “mystery boxes” as they prep for the performance.
Leading audiences through a maze of visionary tricks is Portuguese-born Helder Guimaraos, who has won a variety of awards for his magic. Directing The Present is Frank Marshall, whose previous efforts (Seabiscuit, Jurassic World, etc.) encompassed a far broader landscape and budget.
But for Marshall, prepping this effort at home theater has been akin to the early days of live television, when creatives had to scamper to bring together their weapons of showmanship.
Asserts Shakman: “The Present is our way of proving that the theater can still flourish. Even now.”
But the world of streaming entices him, too. Shakman was drawn to The Great by his admiration for the play by Tony McNamara, whose work wreaks chaos on established historic myths (he wrote the screenplay for The Favourite, which tore into the reign of Queen Anne).
Significantly, Catherine is not The Great of the HBO series, which starred the always stately Mirren. McNamara’s Great is brashly portrayed by Elle Fanning, who sets her sights on staging a coup almost immediately after taking her marital vows. Her palace is seething with sex, murder and royal intrigue, all of it ill-starred.
“I revere the sort of entertainment that blends genres and tones,” says Shakman, whose episode shifts mood from scene to scene, its characters shouting, “Huzzah” and smashing vodka glasses after each disastrous encounter.
Shakman has been running theater companies since age 25 and, despite his range of interests, clearly feels rooted to the theater — hence, his support for The Present. Still, given his eclectic tastes, the new directions of a re-invented Hollywood also stir his interest. There’s an abundance of prospective “Huzzahs” hidden in the still undiscovered landscape.
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