From my perspective, the purpose of a critic is to observe art, in this case film, and analyze it for what it does well and what it doesn’t. To some degree, this is objective as one considers the artist’s ability to understand their tools, but, to a larger degree, it is subjective as the way an artist’s art impacts the viewer is entirely personal. For the easy comparison, one need only look at director Zack Snyder’s latest projects to see where some are passionate defenders, while others are passionate detractors, with even more apathetically living in the center. The point is, that a critic’s subjective understanding comes from whether or not the intent of the artist lands with the critic. This is obvious to those enjoy the same art as the critic and utterly mystifying to those who don’t. The real challenge, though, for a critic comes in the analysis which follows the viewing and absorption of art. How do you describe something, what words do you use, in order to convey the profoundly beloved or reviled? The easy thing is to apply labels, terms which everyone would know, to create a link between that thing the audience already possesses a connection to and the art the critic wants to discuss. In so doing, however, the art itself is reduced into the perspective of the critic compared to that of the artist. In a way, this gets at the heart of multifaceted artist/performer Derek DelGaudio’s Broadway show In & Of Itself, a program which, through sleight of hand, storytelling, magic, cold readings, and suggestion, turns into a transformative interactive experience wherein DelGaudio turns himself inside out in a quest to find out who he is, all the while helping the audience to the same for themselves.
In most EoM reviews, we strive for the most spoiler-free analysis as possible so that our work can be read before observing the film to offer a sense of the quality of ideas, while also able to read afterword to help engage in the thoughtfulness of the work. For something like the Frank Oz-directed In & Of Itself, you’re best going in as cold as possible, so I encourage you, if you’ve come this far, to stop, go watch it, and, when you’re ready, come back.
Everything from here on out may influence how you perceive the show.
In a brief interview from 2017 with Stephen Colbert, who also produces the filmed edition, DelGaudio confirms that the show begins when the audience enters the hall and is asked to pick one of over a 1000 cards off a wall. These vertical-oriented cards, organized alphabetically, contain the two-word phrase “I AM” at the top and an all-lowercase descriptor at the bottom. These words, ranging from “ninja,” “disruptor,” “father,” all the way to “idiot,” are labels that the chooser applies to themselves. Guests are not required to choose something serious, hence the inclusion of things like “ninja” or “idiot,” but at the same time, if that’s how the audience member sees themself when they select that card, the card transforms psychologically into a nametag. This is where the show begins and, from here, DelGaudio takes the audience on a personal exploration of his own search for identity that shocks, amazes, and totally transforms the audience (physical present or virtual) as they come to realize who they are themselves. So many refer to various moments in their lives as life-changing, which In & Of Itself certainly is, but I would go one step further and proclaim that the greatest within DelGaudio’s philosophically challenging work is that it slowly, almost imperceptivity, reframes the audience’s perspectives of themselves. In essence, he empowers them using himself as a reflection by which they can see who they truly are.
Whether you realize it or not, In & Of Itself is a confrontation. It’s subtle and slow, but DelGaudio is intent, almost passionately so, on removing the veil of limitations which comes from identity. The first of six parts of the show begins with a story, which DelGaudio uses to set the stage for what’s to come. Each part appears disconnected to the last, but they each possess an exploration of who DelGaudio is: a secret-keeper, a dog-wolf hybrid, a part of a family. If you’re familiar with DelGaudio’s work (this is not his first performance art production), then you’re likely to think of him as a magician. Because of this, we, the audience, are inclined to look at what he does as trickery. The use of illusion to startle and amaze while he, ultimately, tricks us into believing whatever he presents as truth. This is not the case with In & Of Itself. There are illusions of sorts, but they are not intended to confuse or obfuscate the truth, but to reveal it. The truth, like a critic’s view of the success or failure of art, is subjective due to personal perception. DelGaudio doesn’t lead the audience to a specific and collective unifying answer, rather, one of distinction from one person to the next. As though to drive the point home and in awareness of how people have labeled him (magician), early in the performance, DelGaudio declares that everything the audience sees, everything he says, will be the truth. Doing so sets up the powerful psychological suggestion that every action, every word, carries the weight of candor and, therefore, cannot be anything other than how the audience sees it. As if to drill home that perception is key, the version of the show presented by Hulu incorporates aspects from multiple prior shows so that the home audience can see just how unstaged, unscripted, and undeniably raw DelGaudio’s In & Of Itself truly is.
In & Of Itself is an absolutely devastating high-wire act. DelGaudio is practiced and assured with every movement, yet there is no denying a sadness emanating from him throughout the performance. Part of it is in the slow, deliberate movements as he goes from one part of the 150-people theater to another, often going into the audience to engage them. Part of it is in the stories he tells, personal ones which explore various aspects of his life, nonlinear in form but exacting in their deliberateness. Part of it is the soulful expression, the tired look in his eyes as he speaks. Once you see the show in full, you may come to perceive DelGaudio not as sad, but as exhausted. Worn totally and completely from metaphorically exposing himself as he helps a whopping 84,000 people across the show’s 72-week run transform into a clearer, stronger version of themselves. That’s quite an extensive birthing process and the toll is quite visible.
If one were to find fault at all with the Hulu presentation it’s that moment toward the end is drawn-out to the point where the at-home audience is exhausted from revelation, likely as well from unconscious crying, yet Oz continues to hammer us with one new declaration from DelGaudio after another. It’s not that what DelGaudio is doing in these final moments isn’t revelatory, it just pushes the line of overkill as we, the at-home audience, have gotten the point well past the moment where the repetition for the in-theater audience has not yet lost its surprise or luster.
Having said that, if you are reading this before watching the performance, I encourage you to remove any and all distractions (silence your phone, dim the lights, whatever it takes), grab some tissues, and prepare yourself for a guided journey through self-discovery unlike anything you’ve seen. That’s not just hyperbole, that’s the truth.
Available for streaming on Hulu January 22nd, 2021.
Final Score: 4.5 out of 5.