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The Confidence Man Theatre Review

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by Lucy Graham (subscribe)
I'm a Melbourne based freelance writer with a diverse portfolio including performing arts articles and reviews, human interest stories, and social comment. Visit my blog for an overview lucy-mattersoflife.blogspot.com
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Ever gone to the theatre and found yourself in the cast?
The Confidence Man
Audience members playing their part in the cast. Photo: Ponch Hawkes

Theatre blurs the boundaries between cast and audience in an innovative and immersive drama experience. Directed by award winning director Zoe Pepper (Side Pony Productions), The Confidence Man was always going to be different.

The Confidence Man is a sinister thriller awash with secrets, old wounds, old friends, stolen cash, deceit, power, drug use, coarse language, manipulation and violence. Six audience members are enlisted into the cast. Wearing oversized masks fitted with an audio facility, cast members bring the drama to life as directed. They are the cast. No other actors perform.

Seated in a single row around three sides of a large rectangular performance space, the audience capacity is restricted to thirty. Each dons headphones and receives the story by observing the action and listening to pre-recorded dialogue. Alongside the dialogue we are made privy to the innermost thoughts of one character, together with their directed action.

The Confidence Man
Buckle yourself in for an immersive theatre thriller. Photo: Ponch Hawkes

Dramatic action is focused in and around a house, whose internal and external walls are marked on the floor with white tape. There is no vertical construction making it possible to see concurrent activity, the significance about which individual patrons are initially clueless.

While we are conscious of these other encounters, headsets connect us to just one character's backstory and contemplations. The character with whom we are posited quite literally murmurs in our ears, invading our headspace. Similarly fellow audience members are in receipt of the story from other characters.

The Confidence Man
Masks are central to show's success. Photo: Ponch Hawkes

Masks are central to the success of The Confidence Man. Enlisted actors need not deliver lines or form facial expressions, and the masks offer help in materialisation of character. The large expanse of black mesh surrounding the actor's face enables them to see about themselves, while veiling their own countenance.

Despite comments likening the masks to the gollywog, there is no indication that black people are being depicted in The Confidence Man. To my mind there is no particular racial specificity, and the masks represent universality. So then, why shouldn't the masks be black?

Predictably there are problems with this show. Cast selection is paramount. Success depends heavily on the capacity to follow directions sufficiently well, and to keep up with the pace of the action. Actors need to be able to negotiate confined spaces, kneel on the floor, fall to the floor, and even shift heavy objects.

The Confidence Man
The Audience/cast must be prepared for some fairly physical moves. Photo: Ponch Hawkes

One wonders what will transpire when directions are missed or misunderstood, or when actions take longer than the recorded soundtrack allows. As an audience member my experience was that this added to the dramatic tension. Actors and audience alike are all in this together.

A further difficulty may arise given the necessity for some characters to make close, almost intimate physical contact. Given the actors may be complete strangers, this looms large as a potential minefield.

The Confidence Man
Audience is seated in a single row along three sides of the set. Photo: Ponch Hawkes

My companion and I followed the same character, and I wonder if it would be worth considering fitting consecutive seats with alternate characters. As it was the aftertaste meant speculation about other possible backstories.

Here is theatre worthy of the outing. The Confidence Man is an intriguing experience, and an hour well spent. Get along if you possibly can.

The Confidence Man
Director Zoe Pepper
Writers Zoe Pepper & Adriane Daff
Composer Ash Gibson Greig
Mask Designer Rebecca Baumann
Sound Designer Sam Price
Lighting Designer Lucy Birkinshaw
Producer Gemma Pepper

Season Dates
Wednesday 28th August Sunday 1st September 2013
Performance Times: Wed- Fri 6.30pm and 8.30pm, Saturday 4.30pm, 6.30pm and 8.30pm, Sunday 2.30pm
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Why? Immersive theatre experience where the audience becomes the cast
When: Daytime and evening sessions available
Phone: 03 9322 3713
Where: Arts House, North Melbourne Town Hall
Cost: Full $30 / Conc $25 / Student $20
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