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Theater Review (NYC): The Confidence Man by Woodshed Collective

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Based on Herman Melville's novel, this production by the Woodshed Collective transforms the traditional theater experience into something active and participatory. Don't worry–you won't have to act, but you will find the division between actor and audience disappearing.

It all starts when you board the Lilac, a decommissioned U.S. ship on the Hudson river, which forms the backdrop for the play along with the Manhattan and New Jersey skylines.  Not restricted to theater seats, you watch the play unfold in different rooms of the ship, running from scene to scene on different decks. Crowding into a ship's cabin to watch a scene being played a foot away from you, and perhaps climbing a ladder as a fog horn blows and an actor talks to you, changes the dynamic between player and audience. Not only is it FUN, but choosing where to go and what to see actively engages you in the process of telling the story.

At any one time, four or more scenes with different storylines are going on. The audience is divided into groups and led at the outset by a docent, and if you continue to follow one, you will see a more coherent narrative. But it's your choice whether to follow your docent. Either way, the docent assures you, there will be something to see. When I went, I quickly learned that my docent was not literally a "docent," but the character Docent, who was embroiled in a disastrous affair with another actor in the play in what proved to be a hilarious subplot.

Just as there was more to my docent than I originally thought, so it was with each of the characters. As you learn more about them, lies are unveiled and half-truths emerge, eroding any confidence you might have had in what you thought you knew. This is as appropriate to Melville's original story as the Lilac is for a setting.

Playwright Paul Cohen adapted the original Mississippi riverboat tale, which follows the stories of its passengers as they deal with a con man who sneaks aboard and charms them. He includes some original stories, and his version has additional subplots and characters from different time periods. Watching the separate yet intertwined tales play out, the audience realizes that each character and story is not what they were originally led to believe. Confidence, and whom to place it in, is questioned.

The ending brings the audience back together on deck, where a magician does a card-trick soliloquy. Then you are free to go. However, if you're anything like me, you itch to go back and see the other stories. As with any good "choose your own adventure" book, you can't help but wonder what would have happened if you had chosen to follow a different story.

The Woodshed Collective puts on a good show, well-organized and -acted, with a fair bit of smoke and mirrors. You won't see anything else quite like it – especially not for free. Until next year, that is, when this young group of theater professionals conjures up another free site-specific theatrical performance in a unique location. Don't wait – go to Pier 40 on the Hudson to see it before September 26. For tickets and show times, go to Brown Paper Tickets.

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