At your core, who are you? Are you sure? Now, what if that doubt could — magically — vanish? Abracadabra! It turns out that there’s a Hulu special for that. Derek DelGaudio’s oddly tearful mentalism-and-magic show In & Of Itself was filmed for television during its sold-out theatrical engagement in New York, and now it tries to work its poignant wizardry via streaming. It isn’t your average magic show: There’s no razzle-dazzle, very little shazam. Instead it contains grave meditations on how we allow others to determine our selfhood. Sadly, DelGaudio’s showmanship doesn’t always translate to its new medium — now you feel it, now you don’t. But DelGaudio’s oddly yearning text still has power on TV. He hides thorns among the card tricks, prickly questions about identity that don’t disappear with the next shuffle.
In & Of Itself has already barnstormed the theater scene. When it played 72 weeks at the Daryl Roth Theater in New York, the audience became part of the spectacle, as celebrities were drawn in droves to the Off Broadway theater. (Director Frank Oz’s filming patchworks together many nights of the run, so we see footage of dozens of audiences.) The camera rubbernecks: Sometimes it peeks at Tim Gunn forcing back tears, sometimes it stares at Marina Abramovic or Bill Gates, both smiling enigmatically. The stage version’s power depended on the crowd response — shocked gasps and tearful nods communicating themselves instantly down the rows of seats. Onscreen, though, DelGaudio’s deft manipulation of the room’s temperature and tempo are far less tangible. Instead, the Hulu special tries to convince us of the show’s impact via reaction shots. Tim Gunn’s sobs trigger our own: When the film works best, it moves us at secondhand.
There are three strands to DelGaudio’s evening. The first is the (originally) interactive one. Out in the lobby, before the show, audience members choose tags off a wall, which looks like a hotel’s pegboard of room keys. “I AM … a ninja,” says one. “I AM … a unicorn,” says another. As Hulu viewers watch audience members file into the space, we know they’ve each selected an identity — Good Samaritan, Leader, Nothing, A Brick House. It’s an old marketing technique to get the customer to touch something in the store: If you stroke the fabric sample or operate the touchscreen, you build a relationship with the object. So the lobby participation station is the first and savviest of DelGaudio’s tricks. It creates a bond with the show; it caters to both the audience member’s narcissism (hmm, who am I really?) and acquisitiveness (merch!). It’s also, of course, the element that has the hardest job of breaking through the screen.
This “I am” motif returns in DelGaudio’s second strand — his autobiography, and his struggles with identity. He starts by telling us a fable about a man called the Roulettista, a man who plays Russian Roulette in front of crowds for money. The set behind DelGaudio includes six niches; in one diorama, a robot Roulettista occasionally raises a pistol to his head in a jerky clockwork gesture. When DelGaudio later tells us about (real) ways he has hurt himself and others, he explicitly recalls the entertainer who displays his pain for others. He spends time trying to find the right lyrical metaphor for himself: In the course of the show, he also describes himself as a sailor and an animal. Which animal, though, varies. DelGaudio has dedicated himself to mastering sleight of hand, and he’s worked as a crooked dealer and card cheat. Another of the dioramas contains a sculpted canine head. So, is he a Dog, showing off his tricks? Or a Wolf? (The film’s rather awkward interpolation of a black-and-white film of gamblers in a smoky room is meant to heighten our fear about this risky job choice, but … it’s hokey.)
The third strand is the more conventional magic act. Prettily designed illusions include seemingly solid objects that vanish on command and apparently random audience interactions that grow into startling personal revelations. Magic acts function best in person, since we trust our eyes (fools that we are) more than we trust our screens. So television kills off some of DelGaudio’s virtuosity: moments that rely most heavily on, say, the Ace of Spades are therefore rather flat — his staggering ability to orchestrate a shuffle isn’t exciting on video, where we’re accustomed to seeing a thousand unbelievable things a minute. The special’s great advantage over the stage show lies in the audience interactions, since the filmmakers can select the most poignant instances from the year and a half of its run. Storms of emotion gather as people register each miraculous coincidence, organized for them by the courtly DelGaudio. The illusionist’s own performed authenticity (the tears welling, the well-rehearsed hesitations) isn’t always convincing, but he and Oz do a tremendous job of borrowing reality from the theatergoers themselves.
DelGaudio has clearly thought a great deal about what it means to spend his every working hour hiding things from people, so he has developed a new age philosophy of concealed things. “Every secret has a unique weight to it,” he says. “And you can only carry them for so long.” A climactic effect near the end of the show rocks the in-person theatergoers on their heels. A big part of an audience’s self-identity is its anonymity, and DelGaudio violates this sense of invisibility, turning his congregation face up, reading them like cards in one of his sparkling deals.
So is this depth — or just fake profundity? No one ever went broke reassuring people that truisms are the same as insights; fooling eager strangers into feeling truly seen and understood is the modern American grift. But even though the emotion is all manipulation, there’s still quite a bit of loveliness to delight you. At various moments, DelGaudio handles a logbook containing contributions by audience members, a huge three-inch thick diary-slash-scrapbook. Here the three strands of the show meet and intertwine: The book is a lovely paper object (like the “I AM” tags) that tries to establish the show’s identity (as do DelGaudio’s autobiographical confessions), in which the contributors dream up what happens when they’re not in the room (like the magician’s control of the unseen). DelGaudio tells us that sailors who kept the logs on old sailing ships took note of their position with reference to the stars. On cloudy nights, they noted down their best guess. Logs were therefore half factual witness, half assumption — the two halves adding up to the history of the journey. There’s a glut of “this is a metaphor for that” in In & Of Itself, but this was the one that I loved most. A little bit of truth and a lot of nonsense can still carry you a long way. And though the film is merely a partial record of the excitement that happened in the theater — we can still steer by it.
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