Derek DelGuadio would like to tell you the truth — an odd thing for an illusionist to say, much less in the beginning of a show. It’s the first clue that something seems unique here. That, and the 690 cards in the lobby, each of which start with the phrase “I Am, followed by professions (an ophthalmologist), jokes (a drama queen) or something more abstract (a nobody). A performer with a reputation for being a magician’s magician, the 35-year-old mounted an ambitious project titled In & Of Itself, which ran for “552 times on a small stage in New York City” (the Daryl Roth Theater, for those of you playing along at home), from April 2017 to August 2018. DelGuadio had made a name for himself over the years not just for his sleight-of-hand virtuosity, but by deconstructing a host of notions regarding the nature of these hoary entertainments themselves — a master of meta-magic.
Now he would try to do something different. DelGuadio wanted to fuse philosophy and storytelling, existentialism and elements of autobiography into his work. He wanted to tell the truth, yes. But he also wanted to test a theory. You can blow someone’s mind with tricks, but can you can use your illusions to blow apart a person’s misconceptions — about magic, about his profession, about how to present your story to an audience expecting to seeing rabbits come out of hats? Could you reveal who you are through illusions? And could you force someone sitting there, watching you in the dark, to simultaneously ask themselves: Who am I?
Directed by Frank Oz — who also helmed DelGuadio’s landmark stage show — In & Of Itself exists primarily as a document of those performances, as well as proof that you could make a “is this your card?” type of theatrical experience feel insightful. (It begins streaming on Hulu today.) Those who were lucky enough to catch its original run in New York, or see the previews that ran in Los Angeles, already know where the payoffs are, and how things as random as those ID cards and an anecdote about “the Rouletista” will come together. They’ll be aware of the significance of the six squares behind DelGuadio, which hold items ranging from a bottle of whiskey to a brick stuck in a window. And they’ll recognize the same well-worn fables (see: the blind men describing an elephant) and the just-shy-of self-help platitudes he repeats in his quest to make audience members think deep thoughts. Should you cringe whenever you read someone’s Linked-In bio list “storyteller” as their profession, you’ll risk finding yourself stuck with permanently pinched face by the end.
But the sense of awe in seeing exactly how DelGuadio assembles these disparate bits and pieces into a one-of-a-kind exploration is still there even if you’ve seen the show. For those going in blind, we won’t spoil the specific surprises. What we will say is that DelGuadio and his director have found a way to expand certain aspects of the show for those watching at home, as well as heightening the intimacy to In & Of Itself‘s more personal moments. Home movies of the magician as a boy with his young, single mother add a whole other layer to a childhood-trauma tale. An ability to cut between examples of the same three audience-participation sequences — we’ll call them “Mr. Tomorrow,” “A Letter,” and “You Are…” — from a multitude of performances allows viewers to see both the differences and commonalities of crowd members’ shock and, occasionally, sobbing. For the latter, DelGuadio addresses a man in the crowd after accurately naming who’s picked which “I Am” cards. Rather than reveal what he chose, the illusionist simply smiles and says, “Keep up the good work.” The gent sits back down, shaken. Oz keeps the camera on him, in close-up, for several extra beats. What might have felt like a throwaway bit suddenly becomes an emotionally devastating sucker punch.
There are a handful of filmmaking grace notes like those that make this more than the equivalent of a concert film, and if their collaboration doesn’t quite hit the cinematic mind-meld of something like, say, Spike Lee’s American Utopia, it’s still a testament to presenting a singular version of DelGuadio’s sleight-of-mind showcase without sacrificing its integrity. Along with Mark Motherbaugh’s repurposed score from the original run, they’ve kept the pieces they know work; what was never broke has not been retroactively “fixed.” Oz also knows when to let In and Of Itself speak for itself, and that watching DelGuadio’s technique being put to such extraordinary, boundary-smashing use is where the real pleasure and profundity of this project lies. There’s a genuine magic here that has nothing to do with rabbits pulled from hats. It’s the kind of alchemy achieved when an artist has his or her vision brought to a larger audience by someone who understands exactly what they’re doing. It’s a testament to the power of the material and the determination of its interpreters to not dilute it one ounce. They’ve succeeded in giving you the same sense of recalibration that those who were there experienced. And there are few things more truthful than that.