Magic never works the same way in movies that it does in person, which is not to say that it doesn’t work in movies. It just takes a different kind of finesse, typically relying on editing and effects rather than the time-honored principles of misdirection and distraction. For those who weren’t fortunate enough to catch Derek DelGaudio’s solo show “In & of Itself” during its 20017-18 Off Broadway run — or at Los Angeles’ Geffen Playhouse, where it debuted a year before — director Frank Oz has fashioned a stand-alone film version for Hulu, and to DelGaudio’s credit, the essence of his act remains intact, sparking awe, introspection and tears of connection, even when watched alone.
Not all the tricks translate, nor do they need to, since DelGaudio has shrewdly constructed the experience around the theme of identity, revealing deeply personal elements of his own history in such a way as to prime audiences to look inward as well. The result is a kind of epiphany that leaves them with a feeling of discovery rather than deception. A magic show that can send attendees back into the world with a re-centered sense of self is no small accomplishment. Oz does his best to expand that sensation to home viewers as well, even if the entire production (which Oz also directed on stage) was never designed to be filmed. In a sense, that’s the greatest feat of all, achieving the same takeaway, even if some of the individual illusions fizzle.
As they entered the Daryl Roth Theater, audiences were confronted by a wall of cards. “Identity is an illusion,” said the board, from which each person was instructed to select a label for the duration of the performance. From the moment he appears onstage, DelGaudio is building to the grand finale, in which those labels — “I Am …” a Hipster, a Ninja, a Joker, a Midnight Toker — come back into play, in which the mirror he held up to people on their way in becomes a spotlight of sorts.
In the tradition of master raconteur Ricky Jay (whom he once had the opportunity to assist), DelGaudio is something of a meta magician, transfixing the crowd with stories as he deconstructs the craft. Card tricks are DelGaudio’s specialty, and he shuffles and pretends to show the various ways he can deal a predetermined hand — “pretends” because it’s virtually impossible to learn from this demonstration. The cards come up as called, but the technique remains a mystery, other than to say he can deal a card from anywhere in the deck quick enough that our eyes don’t detect the cheat.
Compared with Jay and other long-form illusionists, DelGaudio seems less confident onstage, which could simply be a disarming persona — part of the “wolf’s” routine, a con designed to appear innocuous — as he hesitantly opens the show with a story about “the Roulettista,” a man who gambled his life night after night with a loaded revolver. “I am the Roulettista,” DelGaudio tells the room, and in so doing, he positions the audience to watch everything that follows for clues to his meaning.
When he takes a half-empty whiskey bottle from one of half a dozen chambers in the stage set behind him and pulls off a snazzy sleight of hand, we wonder if this is what he means about being a Roulettista: Was DelGaudio an alcoholic, risking his life with booze? Does it matter? The mere suggestion opens certain doors in the minds of those who identify. Same goes for a later segment, in which a brick suspended in a shattered window is given new context as he tells of the bullying endured after his mother came out as gay. This too will resonate with many. The disappearing brick trick is almost beside the point — although it’s fun to see it pay off over the end credits. Some of the allegories don’t work as well, although there’s a vulnerability on display that excuses the show’s occasional dead ends.
DelGaudio designed “In & of Itself” as a collective live experience, and there is no direct equivalent for those watching at home. Like an acrobat or a sword swallower, a magician always flirts with the risk of getting it wrong, which lends such spectacles their tension. In film form, it practically goes without saying that any flubs won’t make the final cut. Still, Oz and editor Michael Robinson Fleming (who drew from multiple shows) have landed on an interesting solution, centering on a single performance while creating impactful montages at various crowd-participation points, including the log-reading and letter-opening segments, which change from one night to the next.
During the show’s run, The New York Times reported on a couple of rival magicians who were spotted attempting to surreptitiously record DelGaudio’s act. Prior to the release of this film, it was virtually impossible to find any video of his act online, suggesting that it must have taken some convincing for DelGaudio to document such a “you had to be there” show. What a shame it would have been to withhold the movie’s message out of concern for his trade secrets. Here, he and Oz have figured out a way to share the film’s impact with the widest possible audience, illustrating how empowering it is when others recognize in us more than we see in ourselves.