Derek DelGaudio in In & Of Itself, directed by Frank Oz, at the Daryl Roth Theatre.
Derek DelGaudio in In & Of Itself, directed by Frank Oz, at the Daryl Roth Theatre.
(© Matthew Murphy)

Master magician Derek DelGaudio has made a career of pushing the boundaries of his own craft, which he certainly accomplishes in his self-penned solo show In & Of Itself at the Daryl Roth Theatre (Los Angeles' Geffen Playhouse hosted its world premiere in 2016). But in a way that awe-inspiring magic rarely does, DelGaudio transforms his "tricks" from isolated spectacles into tools of storytelling that do just as much for theater as they do for the art of illusion.

New York City has seen its fair share of solo shows, each with its own signature flair but few that greatly deviate from the prescriptive 90-minute monologue with some choreography around an armchair. DelGaudio gets our attention standing in front of a wall featuring six cut-out windows that hold unrelated items, like a theatrical game of free association. What do a headless mannequin, a bottle of booze, a wolf, a scale, a gold brick, and piles of mail have in common? That's the unspoken riddle DelGaudio unravels throughout his show (Mark Mothersbaugh underscoring it with original music), which drifts with surprising control among fable, personal testimony, and philosophical thought experiment.

We come to find that an exploration of "identity" joins all of these elements — and we have the fun task of considering our own at the door, where we have to pick a card (and subsequently hand it to the usher) that reads "I AM…" followed by a variety of nouns, such as "Anarchist" and "Jedi." Suddenly, DelGaudio's audience for the night is encapsulated in a tiny pile of cardstock paper — an effective visual representation of the exercise's oversimplification of identity. He eventually gets around to addressing that issue but starts by picking apart the layers of his own character, looking back at his ostracized upbringing (the result of being raised by an openly gay mother) and his training in sleight of hand (an interest that sprang from his literal affinity for keeping his cards close to his chest). Here he performs some of his most impressive tricks — though not as a display of magic but of practiced skill. Savvy New York audiences may not be able to be fooled, but they can surely be impressed, and DelGaudio is wildly impressive with his technical abilities.

More than that, these demonstrations illustrate who he is better than any beautifully crafted monologue could. As DelGaudio frequently repeats, there's more information to be found in what you don't see than in what you do. He and his director — the legendary puppeteer Frank Oz — take that to heart when striking a balance between the yin and yang of "show and tell" (lighting designer Adam Blumenthal and sound designer Kevin Heard accent each of the moments that make up the composite piece). Our charming host has ample opportunity to be a commanding narrative storyteller, with extraordinary illusions woven throughout in the manner of a musical score. They're not merely pauses for entertainment value but engine-driving, load-bearing moments that elevate magic from a diversion to a fine art. For perhaps the first time, magic is raising the question why instead of how — and why is leading to far more interesting answers.