By Shari Lifland (@shariontheaisle)
If you’re the type of magic fan who enjoys seeing a woman sawed in half or a dove fly out of an empty hat, “In and of Itself” probably isn’t your kind of show. Yes, Derek DelGaudio is a highly skilled, award-winning magician, but his latest production is more theater than magic; more autobiographical confessional than sleight of hand; and more dark than light. The word that comes to mind is “cerebral.”
DelGaudio is regarded as one of the greatest living sleight of hand artists. Still only in his early 30’s, he has already won three prestigious Academy of Magical Arts Awards, including its highest honor, Magician of the Year, in 2017. (Former winners include Penn & Teller, Ricky Jay, David Blaine, and David Copperfield). As viewers of his hit 2013 show “Nothing to Hide” know, DelGaudio is capable of performing awe-inspiring, mind-blowing illusions that leave audience members shaking their heads in disbelief of what they’ve seen (or think they’ve seen). (“Nothing to Hide” was directed by Neil Patrick Harris, an executive producer of “In and of Itself,” and performed with Portuguese magician Helder Guimaraes, the youngest ever World Champion of Card Magic). DelGaudio provides some “wow” moments in “In and of Itself,” that are similar to those in “Nothing to Hide,” but, in contrast to the previous show, they’re no longer the main event; they function instead as understated codas to his very personal dramatic narrative.
Let’s start at the beginning. Before the audience takes their seats, they are invited to choose one card from a wall of alphabetized choices to fill in the blank, “I am.” Options run from the mundane (“a Physical Therapist” and “a Plumber”) to the philosophical (“an Idealist,” “a Protagonist,” and yes, “A Philosopher”). A stagehand collects the cards as the audience files in to the theater. No one thinks much about them until the very end of the show (a classic example of the magician’s “misdirection”).
DelGaudio takes the stage, which is furnished with a simple desk in front of a wooden backdrop of six recessed niches, each containing an object (the torso of a mechanical man, a wolf head, a collection of mail slots, a brick shattering a window, a wine bottle, and a balance scale). Each object will play a featured role in “In and of Itself.” DelGaudio’s first words are provactive: “I don’t expect you to believe anything I say.”
He then launches into the slightly macabre legend of the “Roulettista,” a man whose claim to fame was to miraculously escape death while playing Russian Roulette, despite ever-increasing odds against him. The man who allegedly related the story to DelGaudio told him, “You are the Roulettista.” The audience is left to puzzle out exactly what DelGaudio means by this. Perhaps the Roulettista is a metaphor for the risk a performer takes each time he stands in front of an audience. By flouting what is expected, i.e., refusing to present a traditional magic act, choosing instead to push the boundaries of what it means to be a “magician,” DelGaudio increases his odds of “dying” (performers’ universal code for failure).
Continuing the meta theme about the nature of performance, he takes on the problem inherent in presenting a scripted live show day after day. How can a performer continually keep the material fresh? Obviously when audience participation is involved, (as is the case for “In and of Itself”), there will be variations based on the reactions of the individuals chosen to participate. But DelGaudio goes further: at each performance he asks for a volunteer who promises to attend the next scheduled show. He then asks that person to leave at a predetermined point before the show ends and to add his or her commentary about the show to a huge, Hogwarts-esque book, returning to read the entry aloud to the future audience. This ongoing chain links one performance to another, connecting what happens on stage to events that occur in the real, non-theatrical world. It’s an interesting commentary about performing, as it runs contrary to the traditional theatrical notion of suspending one’s disbelief.
Interspersed with yarns about the Roulettista, the legend of the six blind men trying to describe an elephant, and the mystical time of day “between dog and wolf” when the fading light makes it difficult to discern the benign from the deadly, DelGaudio shares true stories from his childhood. Growing up with a lesbian mother, he suffered shame and harassment, retreating to the safety of his room where he spent endless hours practicing card tricks and sleight of hand.
Although DelGaudio allows audiences some brief flashes of his brilliant magic talent, (I won’t give away the mind-blowing denouement involving those “I am” cards) it’s hard to imagine a more personal, “anti-magic” magic show than “In and of Itself.” Most magicians emphasize the flash and dazzle of what is seen. Yet when I spoke briefly to DelGaudio after his performance, he told me, “I’m just trying to be heard.” Certainly it’s the audience’s great fortune to both hear and see this talented performer, and I look forward to his next act. (But I also hope he won’t mind if I wish for a little more flash and dazzle).
“In and of Itself” is directed by four-time Emmy winner Frank Oz. Glenn Kaino, a conceptual artist based in Los Angeles, is artistic producer, and Mark Mothersbaugh, founding member and front man of the band Devo composed the original music. The show runs 75 minutes without intermission at the Daryl Roth Theatre at 101 East 15th Street, NY, NY. For more information, visit: : http://inandofitselfshow.com
Shari Lifland is a New York City-area writer who loves being in the room where it happens–on or Off Broadway.