Navigating The Confidence Man 

click to enlarge The Woodshed Collective's "The Confidence Man"

We opened the door and found ourselves backstage. It took a good minute and a half before we were convinced that we were backstage, for The Confidence Man, Woodshed Collective's odd, beguiling piece inspired by Herman Melville's 1857 novel of the same name about a riverboat conman, is staged on The Lilac, a decommissioned U.S. Coast Guard vessel docked at Pier 40. The show presents multiple scenes happening simultaneously, with about six separate storylines. When we opened the door and saw a bunch of characters sitting in a room and one of the "docents" said "hello, ladies" I thought we were still in the show. Not until Lara Gold, one of the actresses, gave my friend a hug and they both laughed, did I understand what had happened. Then my friend and I moseyed on back to where the final scene brought all three sections of the audience together.

Whether or not you find this moment annoying, embarrassing, entertaining, or just funny may determine how much you will enjoy the piece. Paul Cohen, an underrated and sharp playwright, winner of a New York Fringe First last summer for Mourn the Living Hector, wrote a plethora of storylines and narrative interludes for the three "docents" who take three sections of the audience around the boat. Some episodes are Melville's. Others are riffs on the theme of con artistry. The docents guide the audience but also comment on the pieces and eventually become part of them.

The description perhaps makes it sound far more dada-esque and freeform than it really is. Our group, #1, sometimes followed a nineteenth century story of a con man pretending to collect money for a charity involving Seminole Indians, and sometimes followed the story of a beautiful young woman conning a man she's writing to on the internet. Our docent, Juliette Clair, played a flighty, neurotic, digressing creature—in a word, annoying, but occasionally funny too. She would corral the group after a scene to tell us about her therapy session, or her childhood love for Bryan Adams. But it was fun when she muttered "" to the poor love interest/mark (earnest with a little too much solidity and strength for a sad sack, Ben Beckley) after "Goneril Case" (charmingly mischievous Pepper Binkley) said a storm in Denver was the reason she was stranded and needed money. Still, it's irritating enough to be rushed around and tricky enough to figure out what's going on; more straightforward tour guides, even if they did become sucked into the action, would have been a smarter choice, and let us focus on the experience more fully.
click to enlarge The Woodshed Collective's "The Confidence Man"

Woodshed describes what they do as "installation theatre." That's accurate—whatever group you join, you will pass snippets of living dioramas that you won't understand as you are led upstairs, downstairs, along the portside, starboard side, up to the poop, and so on—but the show has more forward momentum than the word "installation" suggests. At times it feels a bit like Disneyland with its costumed, in-character docents, and the way in which you are pressed in on the action. When my group first realized that the pretty redhead was just bilking the mark for money, people said "noooo" and "don't do it!" to him. And nicely, he heard and shook his head. There is beer for sale on the boat, and though it's five dollars a cup, the show itself is free. Of course, the constant hurried motion and the rocking of the boat adds to the "theatre as ride" feeling. You might want to take a Bonine in advance. I wish I had. Wear comfortable shoes and watch carefully. Nobody has fallen down the stairs and sued yet, but it would be very easy to do, and this show is not handicap accessible.

Thematically, the show weaves layers of naturalism and poetry around the theme of trust and lies in relationships. If Cohen and Woodshed want us to see that "plus ├ža change, c'est la meme chose," they've done a good job. Everyone lies in relationships in one way or another–it's not news but it's worth saying, and worth demonstrating, too. A few details were off—surely in 2009 "Goneril Case" would be a fat guy with a beer belly, unless she and her mark were video-chatting, which they weren't. That seemed a forced device just so we could be surprised when we realized that her IMs of love were fake. And, the ending lacked resolution, at least for my group—out of nowhere we're suddenly at a card trick/shell game. A more connected, satisfying, daring ending was really needed here. That we followed our docent to what had suddenly become "backstage" but had earlier been used as a setting demonstrates how easy it is to lose a tenuous thread.

Each track has its own director; Lauren Keating, the director of Track #1, pulled for the most part solid performances from her actors. In the nineteenth century scenes the actors seemed oddly stilted, but that worked for me. Project coordinator and company Artistic Director Teddy Bergmann must have had his hands full here—at times the tracks literally bump into each other and as I noted, we got lost. The boat is a nice setting in many ways with its multiple rooms and faded furniture and the bit of history we're given, including a compelling story that the boat was once a typhoid quarantined area, but the setting doesn't connect organically to all of the storylines and more than one person seemed to be getting tired of all the traipsing. Still, environmental theater is very hard to do and this was environmental theater dealing with simultaneity, on a boat. When paired to a decent story, as it is here, environmental theater has a refreshing, young, alive quality to it, and I predict Woodshed will get better and better at this. There's nothing like it going on in New York, and that in itself is an achievement to savor.

(photo credit: Blair Getz Mezibov, Woodshed Collective)


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