Though he’s adept enough at sleight-of-hand and other stage trickery to have earned the admiration of people like Ricky Jay, Penn & Teller and David Blaine, performer Derek DelGaudio bristles at the term “magician.” Anyone inclined to think that makes him pretentious can look to Derek DelGaudio’s In & Of Itself, in which Frank Oz documents the singular 2017 off-Broadway show (also directed by Oz) that embodies his ideal: Here, the patter employed by some ambitious illusionists becomes full-blown storytelling, with sequences built around a unifying theme and a carefully considered approach to stage and sound design.
As much a confessional one-man play as a showcase for tricks, it’s a magic show in the way a Hannah Gadsby monologue is stand-up comedy: a work capable of winning over those who normally don’t pay much attention to the genre, and certain to leave some in the audience much more moved than they’re prepared for.
A singular, sometimes transfixing performance film.
Standing in front of a wall where six small dioramas illustrate sequences to come, DelGaudio begins with a story he says a stranger told him in Spain. It’s a gripping little fable, enhanced for the film by some appropriately moody animation, and it introduces the evening’s themes: how we see ourselves; how others see us; how both perspectives fluctuate, getting closer to and further from an unknowable, amorphous truth.
A much shorter story, more mental image than anecdote, makes the question of identity more concrete: Stand looking at the horizon at sundown, and it’s impossible to tell if a canine between you and the sun is a lapdog or a hungry wolf. That introduces DelGaudio’s personal history with playing cards, the most successful sequence of the film. As he handles a deck of cards in predictably mesmerizing fashion, he discusses not just the years of practice that got him to this point, but the question of what to do with his skill. Would he be a dog, entertaining strangers in theaters, or a wolf, cheating his way toward the pots in high-stakes poker games?
Where his facility with insanely tricky card-dealing leaves an observer flabbergasted — and Oz is careful to frame these sequences tightly, never trying to distract from the action — other illusions are poetically simple. Something very solid disappears. Something else leaps from one place to another, perhaps wanting to become in reality what its shadow makes it seem to be.
All the while, DelGaudio is talking, pausing, pacing, creating a different kind of illusion — an earnest character on the stage who appears to be dredging up difficult things and having emotional revelations as we watch. In a feature film, he might be played by Mark Ruffalo, but DelGaudio is a good enough actor to play himself onstage, especially because any awkward vulnerability he exposes only aligns us with him further, setting up the final act.
The artist told one interviewer of all this, “I describe it as a theatrical existential crisis, and a shared one.” In different ways, the second half puts the audience on the spot, both deconstructing volunteers’ self-images and suggesting they are so sturdy that a complete stranger can guess how they see themselves without asking a single question.
In this section, the film experience likely falls a bit short of the in-person one. A sequence involving a sealed letter moved participants to tears, but in their living rooms, viewers may lose themselves in trains of thought imagining how the magic was made. DelGaudio’s take on the old blind-men-meet-elephant fable, augmented by cute animation, is a little cloying. And a showstopper involving nearly every member of the audience, in which Oz has edited together attendees from several different performances (including a few celebrities, like a clearly impressed Marina Abramovic), suffers a bit from the expansion.
There, the intimacy DelGaudio insists on in his theatrical productions (he wants only a hundred or so people at each performance) clearly helped him turn a simple act into a profound experience. From the distance of our sofas, we might allow ourselves to admit we already know what DelGaudio’s trying to tell us. We all contain multitudes; we all are alike. Still, watching dozens of individuals at the moment DelGaudio convinces them he has seen into their souls is a moving experience — certainly more so than any you’ve had watching charlatans saw women in half and pull rabbits from hats.
Venue: DOC NYC
Production company: SinForma
Distributor: Hulu (Available Jan. 22)
Director: Frank Oz
Screenwriter: Derek DelGaudio
Producers: Glenn Kaino, Vanessa Lauren, Jake Friedman
Executive producers: Stephen Colbert, Evelyn McGeeColbert, Daryl Roth, Tom Werner
Director of photography: Cezary Zacharewicz
Production designer: A.Bandit
Editor: Michael Robinson Fleming
Composer: Mark Mothersbaugh