Derek DelGaudio's In & of Itself

Derek DelGaudio's In & of Itself ★★

I need to talk a little bit about the worrying mini-phenomenon of Hulu's 'In & Of Itself'. I watched it the other day, rated it three stars, and felt like it was a pretty impressive (if a little melodramatic) filmed performance of an Off-Broadway hit show that sees a magician emotionally connect with his audience in a way that other performers only dream of doing. I won't spoil how Derek DelGaudio goes about achieving this because the film works best if you go in cold so you can have an organic reaction, but the show has been raved about by every famous celebrity and their mother, from Bill Gates to Patton Oswalt to Neil Gaiman to Julia Louis-Dreyfus, etc. I suppose the hype is what drew me to it. Although I wasn't moved or transported by the show in the same way, I admired the technique and construction involved with creating a performance that resonates this strongly with people. Even Bill Gates.

However, the more I think back on this wildly acclaimed "performance art piece" that incorporates magic and mentalism (and therapy), the more I dislike it. Essentially, you have a very talented sleight-of-hand performer using personal tales of woe blended with visual trickery to manipulate the audience into feeling that, by the climax of the show, they have experienced a profound emotional revelation. In reality, it is nothing more than a cheap magic trick akin to the methods employed by so-called psychics, faith healers and cult leaders. Maybe that explains why the show is so well regarded by celebrities (especially the super-narcissists)! But the show has also been embraced by normal people searching for validation of who they are, and emotionally vulnerable persons willing to accept comforting platitudes in order to feel better. The show's creator and star, DelGaudio, is offering them a chance to be seen how they would like to be seen; to give them affirmation and validation of their identity and make them all feel like they individually matter. Even though he isn't really seeing them or knowing anything about them... because it's all a damn magic trick! But this artifice doesn't seem to bother anyone. His con will resonate strongly with those aforementioned personality types because he essentially tells them what they want to hear and encourages them to self-obsess. DelGaudio implements a dubious blend of forced empathy and psychological manipulation in order to play the crowd like an orchestra. As any good magician does of course. Only he crosses a line into messing with people on a deeper, more intimate level.

Up front, the film tells us that DelGaudio has performed 'In & Of Itself' 500+ times, which means he pulls the same schtick every night with paying audience members. Watch this film and think about that as he gazes melancholic into the mid-distance, consumed by sad memories, or getting misty eyed with fairly frequent contemplative silences. I'm sure this felt very raw for him when he first performed the material but can it still be that by show 100, or show 400, or show 500? Come on! DelGaudio is not a good enough actor to convincingly pull off those emotions every time and really feel them. So, there is something fake about him and his approach -- a lack of convincing emotional authenticity -- that renders the whole project somewhat dishonest even if his stories are true. Yet it works on the people in the room with him. He acknowledges his past as a card shark -- a hustler -- and I honestly believe the man is still a hustler. He's simply upgraded his act to seem more respectable. Enough for middle class Broadway crowds to lap up anyway.

The other issue I found when looking back on this show was that DelGaudio's message is ultimately the same cornball copy-and-paste wisdom that you might find from a mantra meme on someone's Facebook timeline. All he is saying is that there is more to human beings than the labels they are assigned or assign themselves. People are (and want to be) more than they seem. It's so facile and obvious that it's amazing he has managed to repackage it as a profound insight. All he is doing is playing into people's insecurities and encouraging the pursuit of self-obsession. And for what? To sell tickets? To make himself a brand name as an artist? Is he really making connections with his audience, or is he playing fast and loose with their vulnerabilities? Are they really being seen by him, or is he using trickery to make them feel that way? Will giving people the illusion of an emotional catharsis last beyond the moment they walk out the exit door? 'In & Of Itself' feels exploitative to me, and never more so than the moment when a clearly distraught woman reads a letter out from her dying father in front of the audience. Her grief is real but it remains part of the architectural connivance of DelGaudio. I simply cannot escape the fact that the emotionality he is extracting from people is contrived, pre-planned, puppeteer'd, and even expected. Because the whole show is an illusion. A manipulation. I think I hate this guy a little bit for doing this and getting worshipped for it. It reminds me of the phenomenon of self-help gurus.

Anyone who has ever seen Derren Brown deconstruct the illusions and tricks of the mentalism trade, often used to swindle and sucker susceptible people into believing utter nonsense, will find this whole experience questionable, if not completely distasteful by the end. For me, I thought it was effective in the moment but it just didn't sit right afterwards. Upon further reflection in the wake of its sweeping levels of hyperbolic praise, I think it's actually more dangerous than it first seemed. Dare I even use the word... problematic! Either way, the show loses a star from me because of this even though I think people should watch it and make up their own minds.

Is DelGaudio's act transgressive or transformative? Is it sympathetic or cynical? Is he exploring or exploiting?... You know where I stand.

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