Successful magic tricks prompt oohs and aahs. Eyebrows go up, mouths are frozen agape in shock as the impossible just … happens.
You see those reactions in “Derek DelGaudio’s In & Of Itself” (available on Hulu) because the man is a technically superb magician who can bend any deck of cards to his will. But you also see people cry, overcome with emotion. And that doesn’t happen with Penn & Teller or David Copperfield.
“I want to do for magic what Duchamp did for art — break it,” DelGaudio told The New York Times a few years ago. For him, tricks are a means to an end. Avoiding a huckster’s brash flash, he is a soft-spoken storyteller who uses sleight-of-hand, manipulation and illusion to explore his sense of self and gently invite theatergoers to do the same.
Somehow, DelGaudio managed to conjure a hit out of his quasi-metaphysical explorations: The stage version of “In & Of Itself” premiered in Los Angeles in 2016, then settled in New York for 560 performances in 2017-18.
Frank Oz directed both the stage version and the film, and he adeptly captures the project’s unique atmosphere. Cleverly, he also uses footage from different performances to indicate various responses and outcomes.
The biggest payoff is set up at the very beginning, when each audience member was invited to pick a small white card from hundreds hung on the theater lobby’s wall before taking their seats: “I am … a translator,” “I am … an idiot,” “I am … a scientist” and so on.
DelGaudio takes a seemingly meandering road to circle back to that initial decision — the scene is incredible in the original meaning of the word — and in hindsight you realize he never abandons some essential queries: Who am I? What is arbitrary and what is predetermined? What is real and what is invented? The enigmatic artist Marina Abramovic can be glimpsed in the audience, and her interest makes sense.
“In & Of Itself” reframes familiar tropes like card tricks, vanishing objects and stupendous feats of mentalism to new ends. It is not often that a magic show makes you ponder not just the how, but the why.
Derek DelGaudio’s In & Of Itself
Not rated. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes. Watch on Hulu.