Magic and Personal Identity in Derek DelGaudio’s In & Of Itself
Derek DelGaudio’s In & Of Itself recently premiered on Hulu. It is a filmed version of his stage show of the same name, which ran off-Broadway for 552 performances between 2016 and 2018. Ostensibly a magic show, its aspirations are much greater than that. As DelGaudio challenges the idea of himself as a magician, his show is structured around a much larger question about personal identity, and both the boxes we put ourselves in, as well as the boxes we let others put us in.
Some things are usually lost in the filming of a live performance. Unavoidable is the loss of the immediacy and intimacy of the experience. Last year’s David Byrne’s American Utopia did an admirable job of replacing that loss in immediacy with a visual experience better than any live audience member could have had. For a one-man show like Derek DelGaudio’s In & Of Itself, similar flourishes are employed, but the nature of the show is so deeply rooted in it being a momentary and in-person experience that it adds a peculiar gloss to everything you see.
Since DelGaudio, and director Frank Oz, couldn’t replicate the real experience of seeing a performance of the show for yourself, they steer into that challenge by layering multiple performances throughout, in key moments of the show. If a volunteer is called up to the stage, you won’t just see one person’s experience of that moment, but rather five, or ten, or more, lending a little bit of a live and spontaneous vibrancy to that moment. You may not be in the room, but you’ll find your empathy triggered often by seeing the experiences and reactions of the people in the room.
As we said, at first glance, In & Of Itself is a magic show. It’s on the basis of that premise, and his notoriety as an award-winning magician, that DelGaudio got people to buy tickets and come see his show. The structure of the show is broken into six sections, one for every chamber in a revolver, and each section is built around magic. The magic itself manages to be both wonderful and wholly incidental, though. Rather than the stories that DelGaudio tells merely justifying the tricks he goes on to perform, the stories are the heart of the show with the magic built around them to illuminate his themes.
To delve too far into the content of the show would do a real disservice to anyone reading this that hasn’t watched it yet. But, I think there is some value in going into even your first viewing being aware of the discussion it’s trying to have around personal identity. The tag line to the stage show was “Identity is an Illusion”. What better way to defend that point than with illusions?
It spoils nothing to say that one of the first images of the show is the wall of white cards in the lobby of the theater. As attendees entered, they were directed to pick a card from the wall. The cards were in two halves. The top half that said “I AM” and a bottom half that said something like “A Nurse”, or “An Optimist”, or “A Freewheeler”. The wall had many more options than there were seats in the theater, so even if the people arriving later had fewer choices, they still had options to pick from if they wanted to take the exercise seriously.
In that early shot, you see people scrutinizing the wall, reading the options, seemingly wanting to pick something good, something that felt right and true to something in them. Not everyone’s experience of this exercise can be the same, but there is something deep to this choice. It means something to say to yourself and others that this is who I am; It means something that other people's choices will have an effect on who you get to say you are; It means something that your options are many, but not limitless, and that they will dwindle as time goes by.
It also means something that when you enter the theater, the usher takes your card, tears it like any ordinary ticket, keeps the identity that you’ve chosen, and gives you back a card that only says “I AM”. For me, this whole exercise, from beginning to end, functions like an overture that gives you everything you need to understand the movements and themes of what you're about to see.
It’s also worth noting something about the journey that DelGaudio goes through over the course of the show, too. Considering that one goes into a magic show expecting something light, and fun, and wonderous, it’s striking that DelGaudio gives the audience something more personal and challenging. He’s not merely going to talk about personal Identity as an abstract social construct, but rather use stories from his own life, stories he readily admits to not necessarily being proud of, to illustrate his points. The show wants to challenge how people see themselves, and he’s willing to make himself surprisingly vulnerable in service of that end.
To say anything more, I think, would detract from the experience. It’s a genuinely impressive work that, much like people, amounts to something much greater than the sum of its parts. I strongly recommend checking it out.
Damian is an endothermic vertebrate with a large four-chambered heart residing in Kerhonkson, NY with his wife and two children. His dream Jeopardy categories would be: They Might Be Giants, Berry Gordy’s The Last Dragon, 18th and 19th Century Ethical Theory, Moral Psychology, Caffeine, Gummy Candies, and Episode-by-Episode podcasts about TV shows that have been off the air for at least 10 years.