Derek DelGaudio’s long-running off-Broadway show “In & Of Itself,” recently taped and released Jan. 21 on Hulu, is a magic show unlike any I’ve seen. It’s true theater: personal and moving.
When most people think of magic, they think of the big, egotistical kind, typified by people like David Copperfield. These kinds of magicians use big showy tricks, which rely on simple duplicities, roping some audience volunteers in on the trick. David Copperfield makes 12 audience members ‘disappear,’ but really just lowers them through the floor. He makes the Statue of Liberty vanish, but he really uses a team of technicians. This isn’t necessarily bad magic, just outdated showmanship. But this old Copperfield style has slowly been replaced with a new type of magic and magic show, pioneered by magicians like David Blaine.
Unlike Copperfield, Blaine’s magic is up close and personal. It focuses on complex sleight of hand and relies on a small audience to amplify the impact of the tricks. That’s why Blaine’s specials don’t often involve a big studio audience, but rather a couple of people. In Blaine’s shows, he is more a side note to the magic rather than the centerpiece. The focus is always on the trick and the impact of that trick.
Daniel DelGaudio, relatively unknown before “In & Of Itself,” performs very much in the tradition that Blaine and others pioneered. His magic is not of the Copperfield variety. DelGaudio is intensely focused on his audience; he’s obsessed with their reactions. The taping of “In & Of Itself” is cut together from several different performances of the show, all of them small and personal, performed in front of an audience of roughly 150 people. The camera is constantly cutting to the audience’s reaction — sometimes shocked, sometimes moved. “In & Of Itself” also uses the diversity of recorded shows to further heighten the impact of a trick or moment. Seeing the same reaction play out against ten different audiences is even more impressive than seeing it play out against just one.
But in many other ways, DelGaudio is radically different from Blaine. Blaine’s shows are dense with tricks, which might seem like a given. It is, after all, a magic show: The point is to see magic. DelGaudio’s special, though, is much more focused on storytelling. He stands in front of a minimalist set with five square impressions, each holding a different artifact representing something from his life. He walks and paces, emotes quietly and slowly spins a tale about himself, his life and magic’s impact on it all.
But as he talks, he subverts the camera’s focus on the audience’s reaction. He talks about the complexity of inner lives, his love of magic and his distaste for performing for others — because most people just don’t get the magic, not really. The camera might show us the audience’s expression; to emphasize the power of each trick, but DelGaudio wants us to know that this whole performance is a kind of concession. He wants to perform magic, but he doesn’t want to perform for us, any of us. The show expertly mines that tension between the artifice of theater and DelGaudio as an authentic person.
There are tricks, but only a sparing few, used to emphasize — rather than substantiate — the biggest moments in the show. These tricks are brilliant, of course, as they should be. And I won’t dare spoil a single one. There’s nothing else to say but to tell you to watch the show.
But more than that, “In & Of Itself” made me hopeful. Magic, it seems, is gaining some broad cultural appeal beyond its traditional status as a carnival trick. Stephen Colbert had DelGaudio on his show to praise the special. Not only as impressive magic, but as impressive showmanship and a good show.
Because that’s what magic is and always has been. Magic isn’t just the fun carnival trick or delightful sleight of hand. At its best, magic pushes and expands our vision of what’s possible. It tests us, strains our perceptions and dupes us into belief. Not that any magician tries to pass off their magic as real; then they would become fraudsters peddling tricks. No, the precise beauty of magic is the tension between its falsity and our wonder, our desire to believe and our knowledge that it’s fake.
The power of magic is the same as good fiction. Fiction is made up; it’s false. But how do we praise good fiction? We say that it was true. Not in a literal sense, but in how it moves us. The best magic does the same.
And “In & Of Itself” is good fiction.