Credit: Matthew Murphy
by Selina Lee Featured Film Streaming Scene

In and Of Itself | Frank Oz

January 21, 2021

In and Of Itself isn’t without its small hypocrisies, but ultimately surprises by delivering spectacle through its big heart and humanism.

From 2016 to 2018, the illusionist and performer Derek DelGaudio ran a one-man show in New York and Los Angeles called In & Of Itself, weaving together magic, theater, and autobiography with such resounding success that its off-Broadway run was extended from 10 weeks to 72. Frank Oz, who staged the show, reprises his role for the film adaptation to showcase DelGaudio’s singular vision. 

Oz is no stranger to whimsy, having directed The Dark Crystal and Little Shop of Horrors — and puppeteered some of the most well-known characters in pop culture, including Miss Piggy, Animal, and Cookie Monster. With credentials like that, viewers might well expect something similarly exuberant, but they’d be wrong. Forget flamboyant Las Vegas-style magic shows; DelGaudio is as understated as they come, readily mocking magic’s razzle-dazzle stereotypes and clichés. For starters, In & Of Itself is unusually intimate: DelGaudio capped the audience at roughly 100 members each night, and the stage remains bare except for six dioramas that highlight central ideas and symbols. Along with footage of the show itself, Oz intersperses montages of audience reactions, DelGaudio home videos, and brief animated interludes in order to give streaming viewers a faithful recreation of the live show.

DelGaudio opens with a story about a soldier-turned-gambler known as “the Roulettista,” using this enigmatic fable as the launchpad for a complex and compassionate exploration of identity. In playing himself, DelGaudio strikes exactly the right balance of storyteller and confessor, rewarding his audience’s implicit trust in bold and surprising ways. In one segment, he recalls the homophobia that he and his mother endured from their community when she came out as gay. His struggle to protect her — and himself — from bullies and other outside forces leads him to magic, and a mesmerizing series of card tricks hints at the inner darkness he channels into his sleight-of-hand. In flawlessly unpeeling layers of card shuffling and cutting technique for the audience, he mimics his show’s introspective journey. He seems to warn us, with not a little melancholy, that we all have the capacity to gamble with our lives as audaciously as the Roulettista.

Yet, in the show’s second half, In & Of Itself shifts gears, and DelGaudio turns his attention to the people immediately before him instead of reaching into his own past. Before filing into the theater, audience members are asked to select a card that proclaims “I am a _____,” the blank occupied by various professions (accountant, anthropologist, public servant) and personality traits (a good time, an introvert, a dog lover). This off-the-cuff opportunity at self-definition — a tangible version of the ubiquitous question “what do you do?” — is exactly the sort of exercise that makes some people cringe and others delight. When given the opportunity, how much do we choose to reveal? How much do we reflect the people around us, and how much does it ultimately matter? The act culminates in a finale that is equal parts moving and cloying, as DelGaudio asks the audience to stand up and runs through their cards one by one, having memorized each of them in order.

At one point, Bill Gates and Marina Abromović are spotted in the audience, and it’s a development that somewhat dilutes DelGaudio’s message that, deep down, all humans are the same and that the human struggle is universal. Once someone reaches Bill Gates’ levels of fame and achievement, their public persona is basically inseparable from their authentic self, and almost certainly by design. It’s easy enough for an audience of middle-class theater-goers to feel, as the kids say, “seen” — they’re paying for the experience. Watching it unfold from a screen doesn’t negate the obvious emotional impact, but it’s clearly something that needs witnessed firsthand to fully appreciate. The same is true for another segment, when DelGaudio asks an audience member to come to the stage and read a randomly selected letter, only for them to find a heartfelt note from a beloved friend or family member. DelGaudio’s biggest and most memorable trick is his incredible humanism, which spills effortlessly onto those in his orbit. For the show’s 500-plus performances, he treated his captivated audience with a level of trust and respect that’s rare in any setting, much less a magic show. That inner core of curiosity and vulnerability is what shines through the emotional pyrotechnics and legerdemain, suitably encapsulating his quote: “When you look away from the sun, everything else is illuminated.”

You can stream Frank Oz’s In and Of Itself on Hulu beginning on January 22.