With a play whose audiences are asked to honor a vow of secrecy about the ending, director Athena Gundlach is understandably nervous about revealing too much before the opening of “Accomplice” — a theatrical comedy with themes of adultery, murder and games of trickery.
During an interview with five people involved with the production, it was somewhat difficult for them to answer any questions. Everyone glanced at each other until a near-unanimous thought was said aloud by stage manager Zack Acevedo — “How much can we say?”
“It’s a complicated play,” said Acevedo, “we keep it a mystery to the people performing it, so they’re not even really sure. That keeps it fresh.”
The only person who knows it all is playwright Rupert Holmes. Best known as a songwriter, for “Escape (The Piña Colada Song)” in 1979, he completed “Accomplice” by 1990, providing almost three decades worth of material for Healdsburg’s Raven Performing Arts Theater.
“I had to read the play five times before I basically understood what’s going on,” said Gundlach. “I’m still finding things, having aha moments.”
The play opens Friday, Sept. 22 at the Raven Performing Arts Theater in Healdsburg.
Holmes, a Tony Award winner, wrote this 1990 British farce, where viewers must swear to keep the accomplice’s identity to themselves. Actors Steve Cannon, Tom Gibson and actress Caitlin Strom-Martin couldn’t share the roles they play. Not even their character’s name.
“It’s not your typical whodunit,” said Cannon. “It’s full of surprising twists, and is really a thinking man’s thriller, or thinking woman’s thriller, I should say.”
With Act II consisting of them talking about the play, there are many references to other shows and people throughout. One of the challenges about “Accomplice” was making sure these references were revised for modern audiences because half the fun is recognizing their origin.
They were lucky Holmes specifies how to do this, and sets parameters to work within, making it an easy process to make changes. The odd part was gathering his notes, which required sending a written request via snail mail and receiving an envelope with stamps.
“The references were all updated because otherwise, it wouldn’t have made any sense,” said Gundlach, “nobody would have gotten them. They wouldn’t have been funny.”
For a show that requires someone to know very little going in to get the most enjoyment, they’ve made an effort to make sure rehearsals were closed to guests to keep things hidden. The team was advised to misdirect any questions that could lead to spoiling something.
With the Internet being an easily accessible source for researching the play, one would think it isn’t too hard to find things out with a few searches. However, it appears most theatergoers respect the intent and want to keep it special for everybody.
“It’s weird because it was written and performed so long ago, but I’d never heard of it,” said Strom-Martin. “It’s very tight-lipped. Something is working to keep the secrets in.”
(If the actor’s name sounds familiar, that’s because her mother, Virginia Strom-Martin, served in the California State Assembly from 1996 to 2002.)
While the play is filled with humor and discovering the unknown, a number of genres are intermixed here. At least it seems.
It’s hard to say for sure, as Gundlach wants the public to have just enough of an idea of what they’re seeing, without really knowing anything.
If there’s one thing important to know, it’s that “Accomplice” is not for kids. The first impression of its poster gives off that classic, film noir, or even nouveau-like quality, as we see an expressionless woman pouring drops from a black vial into a man’s drink.
“It has a little commedia dell’arte, camp and a lot of physical comedy,” said Gundlach. “This is definitely for mature audiences only.”
The Raven Players creative team also consists of artistic director Steven David Martin, and production manager Beneicka Brown. There are no specific connections to Sonoma County, but what makes “Accomplice” special is how it’s anything but ordinary.
With a mid-70s autumn setting in Dartmoor, England, it begins at the Moorland cottage, and a suite in Claridge Hotel, during a weekend getaway for Derek and Janet Taylor. The key thing to keep in mind is constant misdirection, and how nothing is ever what it seems.
“Our artistic director has seen it twice, on Broadway and somewhere locally,” said Cannon. “It hasn’t been done in the area for quite a while, that’s one of the nice things.”
Cast and crew members will have champagne with the opening night audience, where a free glass will be served, and Sunday matinee viewers can chat with actors after each show.
For those considering making it out to this roller coaster ride of a play, here’s why “Accomplice” might be worth seeing:
“This is not a mainstream run of the mill show,” said Strom-Martin. “People who are especially interested in theater and are big aficionados of seeing any genre, they’ll like it.”