On an old steam-propelled, decommissioned U.S. Coast Guard vessel docked at Pier 40 on the Hudson, 2009’s most exhilarating theatrical achievement (thus far) can still be experienced, and it doesn’t cost a dime. Called The Confidence Man and inspired by Herman Melville’s 1857 novel of the same name, this enthralling production is the work of Woodshed Collective, a company that specializes in immersive, site-specific performance. Last year they filled the vast, empty McCarren Park pool with their acclaimed play-with-music Twelve Ophelias, and their new venture is even more ambitious: The show's comprised of multiple, intertwined narratives performed simultaneously on all four levels of the rusty, labyrinthine vessel, named the Lilac. Like life, it’s impossible to see the whole story from every angle, and what you see is up to you.

Upon arrival at Pier 40, the spectators split into six different tour groups. My guide, or “Docent,” was an effervescent, slatternly blonde who humorously escorted our small group as we followed the story of a lovesick passenger opening his heart and wallet over the Internet to his grifter girlfriend ashore. As we shuffled throughout the Lilac from one scene to the next, the vessel swarmed with action, and we passed by and through other unfolding stories, which all share the common theme of deception. (Melville’s novel concerns a riverboat conman.) How all the narrative pieces and production elements tumble forth simultaneously, yet fit together in one precisely-executed whole, is an astonishing mystery. Part of what makes the experience so thrilling is that you’re free to break away from the group and wander the ship without guidance, which, in my experience, afforded small, wondrous moments of intimacy, spied through portholes or within dainty staterooms. On more than one occasion, I was the talented actors’ only spectator. I also noticed a tabby cat pass by me on the stairs at just the right moment. Was it part of the show? Was I?

During the three years I’ve been covering theater for Gothamist, I’m quite confident I’ve never deployed the oft-overused word “genius” to describe a production. So then perhaps you’ll trust me when I tell you The Confidence Man is most definitely a work of dazzling genius, a spellbinding feat of collective creativity. Do I hear a skeptic in the audience dismissing my effusiveness as underhanded hucksterism? You sir, in the back! Do you so prefer the predictable weal of your cynicism that you would refuse the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to step aboard the good ship Lilac, where even tonight passengers will embark on an astonishing voyage of discovery? Well, ladies and gentlemen, to prove that I am as honest as I am confident about the excellence of this theatrical marvel, I am personally offering a full refund to any Gothamist reader who leaves the Lilac in any way unimpressed.

The Confidence Man continues through Saturday night, with a special performance Monday night at 8 p.m. It is free, but you must reserve tickets, which are “sold out.” But don’t despair; I have it on good authority that those who arrive at least 30 minutes early for the standby line have thus far all gotten aboard.