Navigating The Confidence Man

by |
09/18/2009 4:00 AM |

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.