A lot of magic shows aim for immediate shock and awe, stunning audiences with sleight of hand so seamless, it’s practically a rollercoaster for the eyeballs: The gimmick is a means to the end, rabbit comes out of the hat, everybody goes home happy. Self-described “storyteller and conceptual magician” Derek DelGaudio’s beguiling show “Derek DelGaudio’s In & Of Itself,” now preserved in a mystical and poignant feature directed by Frank Oz, rejects such dime store wizardry in favor of a soulful approach that redefines the form from the inside out.
Make no mistake: DelGaudio’s remarkable one-man show, which enjoyed a lengthy Off-Broadway run between 2017 and 2018, has ample card tricks, optical illusions, and even one extraordinary teleportation bit. All along, however, DelGaudio transforms the usual shock-and-awe routine into a powerful meditation on existential yearning and his own bumpy quest for meaning in life. By inviting his audience into a meaningful process of self-discovery that stems from his own upbringing, “In & Of Itself” suggests a lyrical alternative to Tony Robbins-style rabble-rousing with an autobiographical twist that grows more sophisticated and awe-inspiring as it moves along.
DelGaudio’s an inviting storyteller from the start, even as he seems a touch coy about what he’s really doing there: He strikes a folksy, inviting tone as he wanders the spare set, occasionally speaking directly to the audience but sometimes drifting into his own cloudy memories. To some extent, that’s the conceit driving the show: As DelGaudio recounts the story of a roulette player with impeccable luck, he dubs himself the “Roulettista,” a man fated to take risks until they catch up with him, and the unusually metaphor gradually expands to encompass the ineffable qualities of life itself.
Over the course of 90 minutes, DelGaudio flits between stage trickery and alluring autobiographical asides: He discusses the lure of the card-shark life, fiddles with a bottle that suggests a history of addiction, and recounts his childhood discovery that his mother was gay. That last bit leads to a tender recollection of the homophobia she endured, and explains a lot about the tentative way that DelGaudio has navigated his fragile psyche with the emotional armor that magic provides. But when it comes to those sort of takeaways, DelGaudio excels at the show-don’t-tell approach, culminating in a much-ballyhooed stunt where he transports a golden brick to a random location named by members of the audience. (Amateur footage over the credits tracks various audience members who checked out the locations and confirmed the feat later in the evening.)
All of this makes for a wondrous, mesmerizing viewing experience, but “In & Of Itself” doesn’t exactly recreate the experience of attending DelGaudio’s performance; instead, it recreates all of them, tapping into the nature of the experience with remarkable ingenuity. Oz, who also directed the stage show, assembles the feature out of footage shot from several of the 500-plus performances, so that every interactive trick leads to a slick montage that shows its endless permutations. In another context, that might amount to little more than an academic exercise in the variability of magic performances in general, but it actually relates to the specific way in which DelGaudio designed each show to lead into the next.
Mild spoilers follow, though they won’t ruin the appeal of the performance: Every night, DelGaudio asked for a volunteer to take a book home with them, leave the show early, and imagine how it ended. The next night, that same person returned, reading their imagined finale for the audience. In short, the fictional ending becomes truth in the room. It’s a striking conceit on par with the otherworldly ideas on display, and gains additional power in a cinematic context where it’s clear how well the concept fused together with time.
Overall, Oz keeps the cinematic flourishes to a minimum, and avoids too many audience cutaways beyond the occasional eye-popping reverse shot. The minimalist set design does a lot of the heavy lifting: DelGaudio surrounds himself with a handful of rectangular windows, each of which relates to different segments of the show: a robot roulette player, a bottle, heaps of paper, and the famed golden brick. It’s fascinating to watch the way these ingredients drift in and out of the drama like puzzle pieces in an elusive larger picture that every viewer will see a different way.
DelGaudio’s such a fascinating presence that anyone watching “In & Of Itself” will likely emerge wishing they had a chance to sit in the room. The movie captures the gist of the show, but not the sheer visceral strangeness of becoming a participant in DelGaudio’s spell, and sometimes the constant edits threaten to break it. That’s especially true in an overlong finale that finds the performer assuming a god-like role as he locks eyes with countless audience members to seemingly pronounce their roles in life out of thin air. (The whole thing gets a little silly once he spots Bill Gates and calls him an leader.) Nevertheless, DelGaudio’s an unmistakable talent when it comes to coercing genuine passion from audience members, particularly during one remarkable bit in which he selects a random (OK, probably not random) person to read a letter onstage, watching as they discover that it was written by a friend or loved one.
Watching the impact of this process, it’s clear that the trickery matters less than its therapeutic impact, as DelGaudio transforms the tropes of a magic show into a grander, life-changing journey that exists in a category of his own invention: a celebration of the way the world can feel both mystical and ominous at the same time. It’s a universal feeling that nevertheless feels keyed into present-day anxieties all the way through.
It’s also a fascinating exploration of humanity’s curious nature that renders it moot. In the age of Internet forums and YouTube explainers, one might assume that every aspect of DelGaudio’s process could be debunked with a handy Google search. So far, that hasn’t been the case, but it’s also irrelevant to the nature of his achievement. Yes, the golden brick routine invites many questions. But “In & Of Itself” conjures a unique contradiction — the conflicting desires of wanting to know more and feeling, against all odds, like you know just enough.
“Derek DelGaudio’s In & Of Itself” was set to premiere in the Visions section at the 2020 SXSW Film Festival.