The Confidence Man
nytheatre.com review by Heather Lee Rogers
September 13, 2009
Big reason to love New York: theatre can happen anywhere and does. Everywhere you go you can run into intentional theatre by professional theatre artists and the natural drama that happens when we all negotiate coexistence in close quarters. Woodshed Collective creates a fun and unique experience where both collide on multiple levels in their latest production for intrepid theatre-goers. They are presenting The Confidence Man, based on the novel by Melville, on the Lilac at Pier 40. Tickets are free of charge but reservations are suggested since space on board the ship is limited—the night I went had a long waiting list!
Here's how it goes: the audience is divided up by the numbers on their programs and each audience group is then asked to follow a particular, affable "docent" around the boat from scene to scene. There are several, fully developed storylines all happening simultaneously—each exploring the art, morality, and tragedy of the "con." There are many "confidence" men and women afoot preying on the faith, belief, and good manners of others in order to make dishonest gains for themselves.
The ship is a chaos of activity. About six different groups of audience members criss-cross through scenes, up and down steep ladder-like stairs, up to the deck, down into the hull, and sometimes cramming into tiny rooms leaving barely enough space for the actors to perform. All the while the audience is following some docent's chatter about their own con experiences, Melville, and the history of the ship. Actors bluster through the mess in character to get from scene to scene. Scenes erupt everywhere. In between "scenes" there are characters playing cards, giving away free beer, playing guitar, improvising dialogue etc., until the next scene begins in their area. Horns blow, planned sound effects emit from speakers, unplanned sounds (e.g., fireworks the night I went) inject themselves into the soundscape. How the rest of the audience is reacting is also part of your experience. I enjoyed the pandemonium and was impressed by the elaborate timing and choreography that must have gone into building it.
In the rules of this game you may stick with your docent, stray into another group, or just wander around by yourself looking for something interesting. You can also just hang out on the deck and watch things happen on a macro level while enjoying being out on the water on a beautiful night. I believe each docent works with a particular story-line and that scenes don't loop and repeat themselves much but rather move the plot ahead. So for a more linear and coherent experience it pays to stick with one docent, or at least attempt to stick to them as they race around the many levels of the ship. This is mostly what I did. But I am tempted to see it again to find out what happens with the other actors and characters whom I passed but never really saw in action.
The storyline I saw takes place in both Melville's time and today. It involves a few men on the ship trying to determine if a cripple was really crippled and negotiating money for a charitable foundation while each points fingers at the others to determine who is pious and who is a con. Also there is an internet relationship where a woman keeps promising to go to her lover in person so they can get married while asking for money for the trip and her lover keeps sending it in the hope of seeing her as soon as possible.
So it's a bunch of crazy stories about cons and suckers? Yes, but the play is really about humanity's essential and irrepressible need to believe in things. It's about heartbreakingly beautiful ideas like the blindness of love, religious faith without question, and the need to give the common man the benefit of the doubt. On the cynical side, it's all ripe fodder for cons and the audience gets to be in on the joke. So you can laugh when your docent tells you how she personally rescued all the furniture in the room from the Titanic. You can root for characters falling in love, even though you know one of them is lying. And you can gleefully climb up and down rickety ladders on the ship because you want to see what happens next, even though you know it's not real. Because at the end of the day, in theatre and in life, we come together in our need to believe.