The latest production by multi-talented director Frank Oz is all but impossible to categorise. At first glance, it is a magic show captured on film; but it is also an unconventional stage play; a unique, boundary-erasing assembly; and most of all, an ingenious presentation on the nature of personal identity, addressing the question ‘who am I?’ in a completely original way. A simple, unpretentious film that mainly observes, it stands out for its straightforward message and heartfelt directness. After taking awards at the SXSW and Montclair virtual film festivals, the documentary is now available to stream online in full.
The film presents us with the most recent work of Derek DelGaudio, an incredibly talented but low-key, mostly sleight-of-hand magician who had a reasonably successful stage show in New York City in 2013. He followed up in 2018 with a more ambitious show, one that inspired not only Frank Oz, but a handful of celebrities, artists, and filmmakers to participate in bringing the event to film. Their enthusiasm is matched by the live audience who viewed the stage show, and are an important part of the film as well. At the end of 90 minutes, DelGaudio had reduced a small crowd of notoriously cynical New Yorkers into laughing, weeping, emotionally exposed individuals, momentarily bound together by what they’d just observed. It is no mean feat, especially for a man armed with little more than a deck of cards, a handful of uncomplicated props, and his own voice.
Each performance of the running stage show began with the audience arriving, and being presented with an enormous wall of cards, each reading “I AM…” and a different noun, arranged in alphabetical order: I am a teacher, I am a rebel, I am depressed, I am friendly, etc. Each spectator is to choose one that describes himself and hand it over to DelGaudio before taking a seat, introducing the central theme of personal identity, as well as setting up one of the evening’s several magic tricks. Without either literal or figurative smoke and mirrors, only a table, a deck of cards, and a handful of modest visual aids, DelGaudio begins speaking, telling a story that sets the tone for the next ninety minutes, an oddly compelling tale of a man who made money playing Russian roulette. From there, DelGaudio moves through a series of anecdotes, many of them deeply personal accounts from his own life, with the common theme of personal identity.
Magic is part of the presentation, but rather than showcase the tricks and illusions as in a typical magic show, DelGaudio nonchalantly inserts them into the presentation, letting them augment or illustrate the idea of identity and advance the story. The offhand presentation doesn’t mask the fact that the magic is impressive, both skilful and unusual, and only the magician’s understated manner keeps them from drawing all the attention. DelGaudio also begins to include the audience in his act as things progress, inviting them to share both in the magical illusions and in the exploration of personal identity.
Frank Oz’s documentary does more than simply capture the stage show on film. While keeping the immediacy of the live performance, he also carefully enhances the experience, using close-up or overhead shots when they add to the performance; making audience reactions visible; and sometimes displaying a series of brief clips of the same event with different audience members from consecutive evenings, in order to make clear that a particular aspect of the performance was successfully repeated with countless audiences during the course of the show’s two-year run. The filming techniques add impact to the performance and give the film audience a bit of a behind the scenes view of the audience’s experience and reaction.
By the end of the performance, DelGaudio’s audience are completely involved, and prepared to fully participate in the final, astonishing magic trick of the evening, one which serves to bring home the conclusion of the presentation on identity in a touching and emotion group dynamic that only the most delicate crowd management could make possible. Oz’s film continues over the credits, following a few audience members as they investigate the reality of one of the magician’s more difficult tricks, still riding the energy the performance seemed to summon up. It is a brave and remarkable piece of theatre, accurately captured on film. The film itself opens with a request that viewers turn off phones and other devices to allow complete focus. While an unusual suggestion for a home video and one that might seem a bit calculated, it is appropriate in this case.
Viewed with an open mind, the film is less a show than an experience, and well worth the attention.