He doesn’t know it, but three years ago, Frank Oz made me see In and Of Itself.
At the time, Oz and a few of his former old school Muppet performers were doing press for their documentary, Muppet Guys Talking, and I was supposed to interview him in New York City. An impending snowstorm ruined that chance and I was despondent. Oz has been a life-long hero of mine, first because of his work as a Muppet performer with Jim Henson. But as I grew up, I continued to be fascinated by his ever-branching exploration of creativity. Oz’s ability to shift amongst directing (The Dark Crystal), acting (Yoda!), writing (The Muppets Take Manhattan) and more remained a pinnacle example of not letting life say you’re just one thing.
As sad as I was at that missed opportunity, it led me to discover that Oz had directed a new one-man show called In and Of Itself running in New York. It was written and performed by Derek DelGaudio, someone not on my radar at the time, but I knew if this guy could get Frank to come out of semi-retirement to direct his show, I was in.
Two months later, I found myself in that tiny theater with two friends and about 147 strangers. We all walked into a room featuring a wall, covered with paper slips hanging on orderly silver pegs. Each slip said, “I AM” at the top and right below, alphabetically, were a myriad of terms to peruse. From “An Athlete” to “A Zookeeper” and about a thousand things in between, we were all prompted to choose one that best described us. Just one. Some studied their options for several minutes. Others quickly committed to a label. Then we each handed that card to the usher. She kept the bottom and handed us back the “I AM” portion, and we sat down for the show.
That inauspicious little card bookended the next 90 minutes, as DelGaudio led the people in that room through one of the most unique, intimate and profound live theater experiences of my life. And I’m not an easy sell: I’ve seen a lot of shows. But this one still looms large in my mind.
When I heard from Oz (we finally spoke for another project) that he and DelGaudio had figured out how to turn it into a film, I was floored. How do you translate In and Of Itself—a meditation on identity and the self that needs to be a profound, shared experience—into something someone watches passively on a screen?
If you’re Frank Oz and Derek DelGaudio, you do it by pulling off another great piece of “magic”—figuring out via performance, lens and subtle editing how to transmute the heart of the show without sacrificing the emotion that those two summoned 552 unique times inside that black box theater.
In and Of Itself the movie, still directed by Oz and written and performed by DelGaudio, dropped on Hulu on January 22 in all of its continued, intimate glory. Like Oz, DelGaudio is a multi-hyphenate performer, writer and magician—and the antithesis of what that last word usually conjures in the mind. He doesn’t use jazz hands, or sport gaudy tattoos or flashy clothes. Oz captures him as the play presents him: An understated, sad-eyed everyman who knows how to tell a compelling story. And he does just that. In the same space and format of the stage show, he conjures six wildly different stories/puzzles/tricks that take the viewer on an existential journey. Each one is almost deceptively simple, but the payoffs are bold and contingent on the participant being present and open to the gifts that DelGaudio bestows. Miraculously, it all manages to still translate through our seemingly impersonal screens.
In our modern reality, where electronic distraction constantly pulls us away from truly seeing one another, In and Of Itself takes that into account by asking the viewer in an opening title card to just sit and listen—to be in the moment of the show for its entirety. And Oz keeps our attention by framing DelGaudio with aching intimacy. In many ways, his camera gets us even closer to Derek than a seat in a theater ever could, and Oz is masterful in showcasing DelGaudio’s vulnerability, which is the lifeblood of the entire piece.
Gratefully, watching him on a screen doesn’t dilute any of DelGaudio’s power. At times, the medium even enhances the experience by allowing viewers a variety of different audience participation reactions to witness. Judiciously utilized and powerfully cut together, they pack an even more intense punch than any one singular performance ever could.
Those of us who saw In and Of Itself in person were part of Oz and DelGaudio’s small community who left their show feeling a bit graced to have been a part of their multi-hyphenate experiment—maybe even a little greedy to keep this new brotherhood small and special. But now, three years after the show closed in New York, we’re a nation bruised and battered by the violence of defining one another in absolutes. We’ve wiped the humanity from one another and metaphorically forced an “I AM” slip, with one toxic, binding label on each other. We’ve lost sight of the concept that, as human beings, we can be—and are—many things all at once. And because of that, I can’t imagine a time when a film like In and Of Itself is more needed.
And in case you wondered, I AM…A Protagonist.
Tara Bennett is a Los Angeles-based writer covering film, television and pop culture for publications such as SFX Magazine, Total Film, SYFY Wire and more. She’s also written books on Sons of Anarchy, Outlander, Fringe and the official history of Marvel Studios coming in 2021. You can follow her on Twitter @TaraDBennett