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Monologues and magic, intimacy and identity – ‘In & Of Itself’

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Surprises are pretty rare these days when it comes to movies. So much of what we see has been relentlessly promoted, with outreach projected through algorithmic and demographic prisms. To know anything about an upcoming offering is often to know everything.

But not always.

I had heard a little bit about Derek Delgaudio’s one-man show “In & Of Itself” when it was first taking off a couple of years ago, but not much. Basically, I understood that it was a show that utilized stage magic but wasn’t ABOUT stage magic. That was it, really – no knowledge of content or tone or anything like that.

So when I learned that Hulu was airing a filmed version of the show – one directed by the same person who directed the stage show, the legendary Frank Oz – I figured I’d check it out, see some card tricks, that kind of thing.

I had no idea.

What I saw was one of the most mesmerizing and compelling shows I’ve ever watched. Ninety minutes of thoughtful storytelling interspersed with illusory feats the likes of which I’d never seen, all in the service of exploring the notion of identity. Specifically, the notion of self – who am I?

You know how you’ll sometimes hear the term “defies description” in reference to a piece of art? Personally, I find that 99 times out of 100, that phrase is there not because the thing can’t be described, but because the person saying it can’t be bothered to invest the time to come up with an apt, accurate description. It’s a symptom of critical laziness … except for that one time. That one time out of a hundred where description truly is defied.

“In & Of Itself” is that one time.

Here’s the thing: I genuinely have no idea how to properly review this film. All I know for certain is that I will not allow myself to be responsible for spoiling the experience for anyone who might watch.

For instance, I feel comfortable talking about some of the storytelling segments within the show. Delgaudio leads off with a parable of sorts, a tale about a man who made his fortune in a uniquely dangerous way; that story serves as a kind of framework on which the remainder of the show rests. He also talks about his life as a young magician making his living in ethically questionable ways, couched in an ongoing “dog versus wolf” metaphor. And he talks about growing up with a single mom whose later-in-life coming out as gay led to ostracization and worse.

And all of these incredibly beautiful, heartfelt stories are punctuated with moments of magic. Now, I can’t stress enough that I will not be telling you anything about these magical interludes. The fact that I didn’t know when they were coming or what they would be when they arrived exponentially increased their effectiveness when they hit. And rest assured – they are EFFECTIVE. There’s some close-up magic, some impressive card mechanics and sleight of hand. There’s an extended display of mentalism. And there are a couple of things that, yes, defy description. You simply need to see for yourself.

It doesn’t hurt that “In & Of Itself” lands at a time when I am uniquely primed for it; I’m currently involved in a show built around this same sort of autobiographical storytelling (hold the magic). It lends a degree of perspective that I might not have otherwise had, a perspective that allows for a particular understanding with regard to just how difficult it is to lay oneself bare like this, to open up and embrace vulnerability as we share parts of ourselves that we’ve been conditioned to keep private. It was a challenge for me and I had five other performers to share the weight; he goes it alone, allowing us to engage with his fears and doubts and questions for 90 uninterrupted minutes.

In Derek Delgaudio, we have a new type of performer, equal parts Eric Bogosian and Ricky Jay. He’s a raconteur and rake, charismatically baring his inner workings live on stage. His gifts – both as a monologist and as a magician – are considerable; and those skills are on full display through this show. Silver-tongued, quick-witted and nimble-fingered, Delgaudio sweeps us up into his radical intimacy, offering us a chance to reap the whirlwind he has sown.

We’ve seen a lot of good stage-to-screen translations over the past six months or so, whether it’s the full conversion treatment given to “Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom” and “One Night in Miami” or the elevated filmed production take of “Hamilton” and “American Utopia” – “In & Of Itself” definitely sits in the latter category. However, all of these translations have one thing in common: a filmmaker with a genuine connection to the material. This latest is no different, with Frank Oz – who directed the stage production – also taking the helm of the film. That connection makes all the difference, with Oz’s own significant talents serving to elevate what Delgaudio brings the table while also finding ways to effectively shift an intimate-by-design stage performance into something that works at a larger onscreen scale.

“In & Of Itself” was a revelatory viewing experience for me, something the likes of which I’d never encountered. It is a masterful piece of work, one that takes full advantage of its unconventional structure and the idiosyncratic skill set of its creator. Smart and sad, it’s a highwire balance of passion and pathos that simply refuses to do what you expect it to do.

It is, in a word … magical.

[5 out of 5]

Last modified on Monday, 25 January 2021 10:53

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