(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
LINDA HOLMES, HOST:
The off-Broadway show "In & Of Itself," performed by Derek DelGaudio, was a one-man show, a magic act, a piece of interactive theater. It was a lot of things. And now, after telling everybody I know how much I loved it for more than three years, I'm delighted that now you can watch an excellent film adaptation on Hulu. It's moving. It's fun. It's thoughtful. And I have no idea how he does it. I'm Linda Holmes. And today we're talking about Derek DelGaudio's "In & Of Itself" on POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. So don't go away.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
HOLMES: Welcome back. Joining us from his home in Washington, D.C., is writer Chris Klimek. Hey, Chris.
CHRIS KLIMEK, BYLINE: Hi, Linda. I remember you talking about this show three years ago. So I'm excited to finally have seen it.
HOLMES: Right? So it's a little bit tough to set this show up. I would describe it as a series of kind of storytelling vignettes. They're punctuated by different allusions. One has card magic. A couple have really clever interactions with the audience. This was directed by - both the show and the film are directed by Frank Oz. Frank Oz, of course, is the, you know, voice of Yoda, voice of Miss Piggy, director and creator of many wonderful things on top of that - also the lawyer in "Knives Out." And the whole show is really about what it means to define who you really are and for other people to see who you really are.
And I do want to say, what I told people from the beginning about this show is see it, have all of its surprises open themselves up to you. And then, come back and talk about it. But at the same time, you know, we're going to try not to give away all of its secrets and sequences. So Chris, one reason why I wanted to talk to you about this was that you've done a lot of writing about theater. But the other reason I wanted to talk to you about this is - tell me what job you had, that some people probably know you had and some probably don't, that is relevant to this show.
KLIMEK: For about a year, I was a personal assistant to Ricky Jay, the illusionist and historian, you know, sort of scholar of magic, character actor, et cetera, et cetera.
HOLMES: Yeah, one of the - I think it's safe to say - most famous users of magic and illusion of the last, probably, hundred years.
HOLMES: So I'm delighted that we are able to have this conversation. Now, you did not see this live in theater, as I did.
KLIMEK: No. No, I didn't.
HOLMES: What was your reaction to this piece?
KLIMEK: Well, I was very disarmed by it, which, you know, the way it sounds like you and many other people have been. I did go find the Stephen Colbert segment where DelGaudio, who has, you know, subsequently appeared on it again with Frank Oz - you know, when the show was still having its run circa 2017 and 2018 he was - went on Colbert. And Colbert talked about wanting to just sit in the silence after it had ended and being reluctant to applaud.
HOLMES: I get that. And Colbert is a producer on the film, so - which I think comes from his appreciation for the show.
KLIMEK: Yeah. He wanted to, you know, use his stature, I guess, to help more people to see this thing. But I realized when I was reflecting on this that the show that I've seen that it most reminded me of was not Ricky's show, "52 Assistants," which is the one that I worked on, but one by Daniel Kitson, who is a solo performer who's done a lot of shows in Edinburgh Fringe over the last 20 years. He had the U.S. premiere of a show of his called "Keep." - that's K-E-E-P with a period for some reason. That was at Studio Theatre here in D.C. in 2019. And the only real similarity is that it's the kind of show where the canvas turns out to be so much bigger than what you think it is, you know, in the way that this show - if I can say this - initially appears to be, you know, sort of a show of diversions and illusions and ends up being more of a personality inventory in a way that sort of fits into the Bidenesque (ph) call for unity that we're all living through right now...
KLIMEK: ...This just plea that we all see one another, you know, in our fullness, in our totality, that we not reduce people, which, I mean, I - and I hate to summarize this like this because, one, the whole show is about how summarization is reduction.
KLIMEK: Like, that's the problem. But that also sounds kind of wishy-washy, you know? It sounds a little like daytime chat show...
HOLMES: It makes it sound toothless in a way that I think it's not.
KLIMEK: Exactly. Yes. Yes. That's right.
HOLMES: Yeah. Yeah. And, I think, one of the things I talked about when I reviewed it - and you can read my review of it at NPR - is that when you first walked into the theater - it was the Daryl Roth Theatre, wonderful New York spot - there was a wall of these cards. And they said - the top half would say, I am. And the bottom half would have a description. Like, you would pick a card that said, I am a father, a daughter, but also, you know, things like an adventurer, a good Samaritan, a leader, an accident - like, all kinds of different ways to describe yourself. And then, when you go in, they tear your card. You keep the I am half. And they keep the half with the description. And then there is, at one point, a thing that I would describe as a kind of a - it's a variation on kind of king of spades, is this your card? But it relates to that question of identity in all these super interesting ways. I loved it so much. And I, again, as Stephen Colbert, I guess, said about sitting in the silence - you know, the friend that I took kind of walked out of it and said, that kind of messed me up. I need a minute (laughter). It's really - it's a pretty profound thing. What did you think of the actual magic elements?
KLIMEK: You know, it's kind of thrown away. I mean, I'm sure he's very good at it. But there is a segment where he, you know, sort of in the context of giving some autobiography, he just very quickly takes us through the series of various grips and deals and things that he taught himself to - you know, in manipulating cards. That stuff is almost the entirety of what Ricky showed - "52 Assistants" is about. I mean, it's 90 minutes of him, basically, teaching you how to cheat at cards - I mean, assuming you have near infinite time and resolve to get really good at it, you know? But, I mean, he expands, like, zooms in pretty much just on that, which is - what? - like, 45 seconds of the show.
HOLMES: Yeah. I mean, I think what I love about it is when you think about magic, there's something that is a little bit glib and slick about card tricks - right? - not just because everybody sort of has seen a lot of card tricks, but because there's something that's kind of inherently weightless about the idea of, look; I can make all these cards, like, appear in a certain order. You know, you know people do actually use this to cheat other people out of money, which isn't true of all kinds of magic. And what I love about it is I think he uses the glib and slick nature of card tricks to have that be the part of the show where he's talking about kind of the glib and slick part of himself and the operator part of his personality, which sits up against this incredibly, like, earnest - like, he's just like a ball of feelings in some ways.
HOLMES: But he's also kind of coming clean about the fact that he also knows how to sit at a table and cheat at cards and that he's very, very good at it.
KLIMEK: Yeah. There's a very beautiful metaphor in this about the twilight part of the day where you can't tell whether you're walking towards a dog or a wolf.
(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "DEREK DELGAUDIO'S IN & OF ITSELF")
DEREK DELGAUDIO: This expression, the time between dog and wolf, it comes from the Middle Ages. It was a cautionary expression that parents would use to scare their children, make sure that they got home before it got dark out. You better get home before the time between dog and wolf because at this time of day, it's very difficult to distinguish a friend from a foe at a distance. It's hard to tell the difference between a dog and a wolf. And by the time it gets close enough to you for you to make out what it really is, too late.
HOLMES: Yeah, that's basically it. He talks a lot about kind of what that means. There's a thing about the idea of a person being dog versus wolf, the part of you that's a wolf.
KLIMEK: Yeah. And, I mean, he has such an interesting face, DelGaudio. I mean, I guess he's done some acting that I haven't seen. I mean, I wonder if the reception of this special will, maybe, you know, increase the kinds of offers he's getting to do work like that. But it's very difficult to know whether you want to trust him or not because he is clearly playing against whichever your knee-jerk reaction is, you know?
KLIMEK: And he's - like, he has such a broad face that, like, he could - you could either initially read him as a charlatan or just a total sweetie pie (laughter).
HOLMES: Yeah, absolutely. And I think that's what the point of the show is, right? Like, the point of the show, in a lot of ways, is to talk about, what is it to see yourself in a particular way? And what is the impact of having other people see you as you are? He talks in one segment about the old story about the men feeling the different parts of the elephant. And, you know, if you're feeling the tail, you think it's a rope. And if you're feeling the side of it, you think it's a wall - and, I think, goes in such an interesting direction with that metaphor in terms of - with that kind of old story about, you know, but what does it mean to say that the truth of that story is supposed to be, none of these people understand what the elephant really is because they don't understand that, really, it's an elephant, right?
HOLMES: It's a - it has a simple answer. It's an elephant. And he kind of talks about that. And I find that so moving. But I think the parts of it that are the most special to me are the parts that are interactions with the audience because, you know - and I love the fact that, at a couple different places, you see people interact with him in a way that when you're there in the audience, it just seems somewhat impossible, which is exactly the way it's supposed to feel. But it feels impossible in a slightly different way from - I just pulled a coin out of your ear.
HOLMES: You know what I mean?
KLIMEK: If you can make it feel like there are 145 plants in a 150-seat house, that's pretty good.
HOLMES: Absolutely. And, I mean, I saw it twice. I didn't see anything in the two times that I saw it that indicated anything in terms of, you know, like if you go twice you realize blah, blah, blah, it's the same person. It's a whatever. I didn't spot anything. I picked different cards the two times.
KLIMEK: Yeah. You know, you and I have known each other a long time, so I feel comfortable asking you this - which cards, Linda? Which - give us at least one of them.
HOLMES: Sure. No. The first time that I did it, it was October of 2017. I had just signed the contract for the book that I had written a couple months earlier. And it was still a year and a half away from being published. And I took a novelist. And so when you've seen the show - when you sort of have seen the show, it makes more sense. But the idea of kind of identifying yourself in that way when you're right in that process of beginning to see yourself that way, it was pretty profound to me, honestly. The second time I think I picked something like game changer or something less - much less interesting the second time.
KLIMEK: Well, when you watch the special, which clearly - I mean, I don't know how many of these, you know, 550-ish performances were filmed, but it was clearly at least a double-digit number of them because, you know, many of these audience participation segments you see very quickly iterated over and over again, you know, and you see...
HOLMES: Sort of supercuts.
KLIMEK: Yeah, yeah. And I think it does kind of very shrewdly underscore the whole homily here about not labeling people, not reducing people and stuff because when he's going through and kind of guessing - if that's the word - or discerning, like, the way each member of the audience chose to identify themselves at the beginning of the show, some of them, you know, you're like, oh, well, of course, that guy said he was a disrupter and, well, that person just looks like a yoga teacher.
HOLMES: Well, including sort of a handful of famouses and it's like, oh, really? Bill Gates said he was a leader? Big surprise. Because you spot a handful of famous people in that montage.
KLIMEK: Yeah, no, it'd be more interesting if, you know, Bill Gates had said he was a failed songwriter or something, but - yeah. But some of them were where people are using or choosing more abstract words. There's a big - the person who calls themselves a reflection has a big moment. You know, it makes you feel guilty a little bit for being so smug about being able to pick out the disrupter and the yoga teacher.
HOLMES: Boy, it's really - the thing that I loved about this - I really was not sure whether it was going to be possible to in any way convey what it felt like to be at this show because it is such a live experience, right? And it wouldn't have worked if all they did was sort of film what's on the stage. That would not have worked. What works is filming the whole room. What works is sort of filming the experience that he's having with this audience. And in that way, partly because of the way it's edited in those sections that you're talking about where they show several people together, you get that sense of, oh, this is the way this goes. And at the end, I started to cry, as I did live. I started to react very powerfully to, you know, spotting people in the audience like Tim Gunn and Larry Wilmore and a couple of other famouses that you see toward the end. And I really - I was shocked that it was as powerful as it was when I was so firmly convinced they'd never translate it, you know? I'm curious what you think about this because my reaction was, I like this magic because it's about something. It's about something besides the magic itself. It's not just about like, oh, here's what it's like to be fooled. Here's what it's like not to know what's going on. It's not the Penn & Teller - it's also not the Penn & Teller kind of we want to get into the whole idea of what you know and what you don't know and what you understand.
HOLMES: This is like magic as story. And in a lot of ways, this is - my bottom line with this show is it's magic, it's illusion, and it's also one of the truest and most transparently honest pieces I've ever seen in terms of the emotion of it. Well, Derek DelGaudio's "In & Of Itself" is available on Hulu. You can check it out; again, directed by Frank Oz. Who doesn't love Frank Oz and understand Frank Oz's fondness for magic? We want to know what you think. Find us at facebook.com/pchh and on Twitter - @pchh. That brings us to the end of our show. Chris, thank you so much for being here to talk about one of my very favorite things.
KLIMEK: Oh, thank you, Linda. I'm so glad I got to share this with you.
HOLMES: Yeah, absolutely. And, of course, thank you for listening to POP CULTURE HAPPY HOUR from NPR. If you have a second and you're so inclined, subscribe to our newsletter. That's at npr.org/popculturenewsletter. We will see you all tomorrow.
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