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Derek DelGaudio is a troubled and troubling man. And I mean that in the best possible way. DelGaudio’s low key demeanor may be studied, but he is not a man to be underestimated. In Derek DelGaudio’s one-man performance piece, In & Of Itself, he tells the familiar story of the six blind men confronted with an elephant, each of whom can only identify the elephant from his own perspective: the man at the elephant’s side perceives a wall, the man at the tail perceives a rope, the man at the legs feels a tree trunk, and so on. For the audience at any performance of DelGaudio’s play, they are facing an elephant.
For some it will be performance art, and for some it will be a play with inexplicable magic. For some it will be a meditation on identity and the process of labeling, while for others it will be a story about the power of stories. For others still, it will be a play about memory, and how the images that remain with us shape the rest of our lives.
Peter Brook in his short but influential book, The Empty Space, wrote this about live performance:
“When a performance is over, what remains?…The event scorches on to the memory an outline, a taste, a trace, a smell—a picture. It is the play’s central image that remains, its silhouette, and if the elements are highly blended this silhouette will be its meaning, this shape will be the essence of what it has to say.”
Derek DelGaudio takes this advice to heart. His stage setting is a space in which the back wall consists of six windows, each with a strong image: a gold mechanical head and torso with a gun in its hand; a bottle atop a pile of sand; a dog—or is it a wolf?—with a pack of cards in its mouth; a golden brick; a mailbox full of letters; and a set of scales. Each image takes DelGaudio further into the story of his lives and identities. He is generous enough and clever enough to make those of us in the audience take our own journey as well.
If this sounds vague, obscure, it is for a few reasons. To give away any of the specifics of the…experience—I think I’ll settle on that as the label for what happened on Saturday—would be to dilute the experience for others. And I’m not just talking about the magic components. In fact, the strongest aspect of DelGaudio’s piece for me was not even the magic, extraordinary as that was. It was DelGaudio’s view about the elephant story that resonated most for me—a perspective that goes beyond most re-tellings of that story and made me see the parable in an entirely different light. Would it be too strong to say that it has me off-balance still?
What is this thing? Well that’s what the show is about, and it’s hard to put a label on it. Well, imagine if Spalding Gray did sleight of hand…that would be two views of the elephant. DelGaudio is probably best known as a magician’s magician, but unlike many other magicians, you won’t see his work plastered all over YouTube. I do know that he and director Frank Oz have used all their skill to do something that most magicians never dream of. Derren Brown, the British magician and mentalist, in his recent US outing had a show called Secrets, which was a very good compilation of his greatest hits. It was clear, however, from Brown’s introductory remarks that he was reaching for something more, to explore the inner secrets of self. But Brown was not able to pull it off, and stayed safely within his skill set of stage magician. DelGaudio on the other hand, manages to convey the true feeling of revealing secrets—and not the ones that magicians keep locked up in some empty safe. He talks about the personal dilemma of having as a magician great skill that is never meant to be shown, and the personal toll that that takes; he talks about the secret of his childhood; he talks about what we can allow ourselves to know about ourselves. He talks about both the liberatory freedom and excruciating restraint that an affixed label gives a person.
But DelGaudio’s biggest trick is not just that he talks about it for himself, but in a stunning few moments near the end of the piece, a substantial portion of the audience gets the experience of deeply feeling their true and perceived identities.
Remember the opening to The Glass Menagerie? The narrator, Tom says, ““Yes, I have tricks in my pocket; I have things up my sleeve. But I am the opposite of a stage magician. He gives you illusion that has the appearance of truth. I give you truth in the pleasant disguise of illusion.”
That’s Derek DelGaudio. He is only playing until August 19th at the Daryl Roth Theater in NYC. If anything in this review sparked your interest, I would urge you to see him before it ends. There’s not going to be another one of his like again.