It's fitting that Derek DelGaudio's new show began as an empty pair of brackets in the Geffen Playhouse's season preview catalog. The production, since christened "In & of Itself," is all about defying labels. To categorize the 31-year-old performer as a "magician" would only validate his point. DelGaudio laments the word has a stink about it — whether of preening Vegas deception artists or someone doing silly party tricks for kids.
"I'm deeply proud of being a magician and trying to create a world that is metaphorically magical that represents the actual magical world that we live in," DelGaudio said. "My frustration is when the world doesn't recognize what you do as being valuable. And that's because of context, it's because of the sea of amateurs out there. It's not magic's fault, you know?"
The word "puppeteer" doesn't fare much better, something known all too well by the director of DelGaudio's Geffen show, Frank Oz. "When I started directing, I still was haunted by the puppeteering," Oz said. "I don't like a label of age, I don't like a label of 'puppeteer' — I just don't like labels."
The veteran film director of "Little Shop of Horrors" and voice of the Western world's childhood (Miss Piggy, Grover, Yoda) is sitting, relaxed, next to DelGaudio on a couch in a Geffen office. DelGaudio's round, boyish face, capped by an all-American haircut, is a stark contrast to his 40-year elder, whose horseshoe of white hair rings a head full of Yoda-worthy insight and experience.
The men discovered how surprisingly simpatico they were in 2013 when Oz attended DelGaudio's show, "Nothing to Hide," in its off-Broadway run in New York, and Oz's wife urged him to say hello. Across the generational divide, a friendship bloomed.
"I responded to his lack of performance," Oz said. "There was a sense of wonder about his skill — I was taken away by that. But I was most impressed by his lack of salesmanship and his desire to just let it out there and you do what you want."
DelGaudio began practicing magic growing up in Littleton, Colo. (and later Colorado Springs), and in the last five years he has risen to the top of the deck. A two-time close-up magician of the year at the Magic Castle, he and former partner Helder Guimarães created one of the most popular shows at the Hollywood magic club and translated it into "Nothing to Hide," directed by Neil Patrick Harris, then president of the Magic Castle. What was initially a one-month, non-subscription sideshow in the Geffen's smaller, 120-seat theater, "Nothing" was so popular that it got extended to 18 weeks, grossed $1 million and became one of the five-highest-grossing productions in the theater's 20-year history.
"It's one of those things you wish there was a formula for, because you would duplicate it for every show you do," said Gil Cates Jr., the Geffen's executive director. The theater has worked with magicians before, notably Ricky Jay and Teller, but this show was special.
Special (and successful) enough that the Geffen committed to including DelGaudio's new show in the subscription series "without knowing what it was," Cates said — an unprecedented vote of confidence. "We basically gave him this slot and called it 'Untitled, Derek DelGaudio.'"
The timing doesn't hurt. DelGaudio is one of several magicians enjoying a resurrected fascination with magic. Guimarães has been selling out his own one-man show, "Borrowed Time," something of a clandestine affair held at a secret L.A. location. On the big screen, the illusionist characters from "Now You See Me" — a surprise hit in 2013 grossing $118 million domestically and $234 million overseas — are back for a sequel in June. Fox just debuted the series "Houdini & Doyle," the Syfy series "The Magicians" has been renewed for a second season, and Harry Potter is making magic at Universal Studios Hollywood and has a prequel film in November.
DelGaudio quipped that "In & of Itself" has been brewing since he was 4, but he began developing the show in earnest last May. At first it was only in collaboration with producer Glenn Kaino, with whom he formed the art duo A.Bandit. DelGaudio wasn't sure he wanted another celebrity director — or even a director at all — for what he's calling a vulnerable one-man performance.
"It's about the notions of the duality of one's identity," he said, striving to describe a deliberately ambiguous show that doesn't have a traditional script. "You are who you are, but you're also who you are because I see you as that. And you're both of those things, and they're both true, and they're not necessarily one thing."
Oz leaped into the conversation. "It sounds like we're ... self-indulgent," he said, using an adjective that can't be printed. "I have a threshold where I start puking if it's too self-indulgent or highfalutin. So I've got to really watch out — and he does too. Because as an audience member, I'm thinking, 'God, I don't want to see your life on stage. Stop whining.' I will not have that."
Oz's allergy to all things "artsy-fartsy" was a major reason DelGaudio eventually asked him to direct.
"'Dirty Rotten Scoundrels' was my favorite movie growing up," DelGaudio said, "so accessibility is really important to me." In Oz's witty work he recognized that "simplicity is not simple."
"Also," DelGaudio added, "I know Frank cares. He will protect the work, but he will also protect me from myself. I have done things for this project that I have never done and may never do again. But it comes from a place of trust and respect, that I will blindly go where he tells me."
He may be the only one on stage, but DelGaudio has surrounded himself with other talent, many to serve as human "guardrails" to prevent him from veering off course. The team includes Devo frontman and prolific composer Mark Mothersbaugh, Tony-winning lighting designer Jules Fisher ("Pippin") and mentalist Michael Weber. Tom Werner of the Carsey-Werner company (and chairman of the Boston Red Sox) is a producer.
Despite his self-indulgence gag reflex, the fatherly Oz lauds DelGaudio's bravery and generosity in the show. Oz clicked with the younger man, who is given to dreamy philosophizing, thanks to DelGaudio's "purity of intent."
Plus, Oz said, he's a rebel.
"I'm attracted to risk and anarchy, rebelliousness and commitment," said Oz, who compared DelGaudio to another longtime collaborator: Steve Martin. The hard-to-label Martin commented on comedy while doing comedy, much as DelGaudio does with magic.
"Steve would come up with ideas, like Derek, and I'd say, 'I don't know, Steve — I think this one's better,'" recalled Oz. "And he'd say, 'OK, fine.' I've been blessed with people who trust me like that. And a great reason for me doing this show is, I'm a rebellious person. Even my movies, as people think they may be soft, underneath there's something a little darker."
After lots of talk about identity and empathy, about how the world "conspires against wonder," DelGaudio said: "When he described the Muppets being anarchists, I was like, 'I like breaking things!' Basically, I want to break a thing."