Tuesday, February 2, 2021

Nate Hood on In & Of Itself ★★★★★

The best magicians, the ones who are more than just simple illusionists, are those who understand that magic is a medium, not an end in itself. The Amazing Randi’s disciples Penn & Teller use magic to interrogate humanity’s capacity for self-delusion. Derren Brown uses mentalism to question viewers’ preconceptions of cognition and susceptibility. But Derek DelGaudio, two-time Academy of Magical Arts Close-up Magician of the Year, attempted something more inscrutable, more noble in his off-Broadway show In & Of Itself which ran for over 500 performances from 2016 to 2018. He sought to force his audience to reevaluate what it means to be a person, a living, breathing, feeling person utterly unique and alone in this world. And, by some miracle more impressive than any meager stage illusion, he succeeded. 

Deftly weaving autobiographical storytelling and philosophical reveries, DelGaudio created a show that was more than just an assembly line of “magic tricks.” It’s a confessional meditation on identity that’s alternatively enchanting, heart-breaking, reverent, and achingly human. Those who missed the show’s original run can now experience it themselves thanks to a filmed version directed by Frank Oz now available on Hulu. 

But this is no rote documentary. Much as Spike Lee transformed David Byrne’s own stage show American Utopia into something intimately, unmistakably cinematic, Oz crafts an experience that couldn’t exist outside of a screen. Magic purists will chafe at the animated interludes, the multiple edits during close-up tricks, and the blending of different audiences from different nights. After all, every such distraction breaks the “illusion” of the trick because anything can be switched, manipulated, or altered when the camera isn’t looking right at the performer. Additionally, people who love and seriously study magic can probably intuit more or less how DelGaudio did some of his tricks (particularly a gobsmacking variation on a famous Ricky Jay card routine). 

But the verisimilitude of the magic tricks were secondary to what DelGaudio and Oz wanted to accomplish. What mattered were the connections he made night after night with his audience, forcing complete strangers to come alive in ways they never could’ve expected. Of course, I can’t tell you any of the tricks. But suffice it to say In & Of Itself is a once-in-a-lifetime movie of a once-in-a-lifetime performance pleading for inter/intra-personal compassion and empathy. Not too shabby a trick, huh?

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