A thriller in the second degree

Nothing is what it seems in Devil’s Thumb’s latest

Gary Zeidner | Boulder Weekly

Experiencing a theater company for the first time is very much like going on a blind date. High hopes compete with trepidation. The possibilities are limitless. You might discover your soul mate, or you could end up with a hefty tab and a nasty case of crabs. Thankfully, my first go around with Devil’s Thumb Productions, a relatively new Boulder troupe, was much more the former than the latter. She may not be my soul mate, but I’d definitely ask her out again.

Devil’s Thumb opens its third season — which also includes Neil LaBute’s The Shape of Things, Shel Silverstein and Tracy Letts’ Bug — with Accomplice, by award-winning playwright Rupert Holmes. It is apparent from Devil’s Thumb’s choice of plays for this season that it is an ambitious, young and hungry theater company. There are no obvious or facile choices in the lineup, and after seeing what they were able to do with Accomplice, I am excited to learn how they fare with the rest of their varied and intense slate of productions.

The advertising for Accomplice describes it as a “comedic thriller” in which “nothing is quite what it seems.” Let’s hear it for truth in advertising! Accomplice is, in fact, an extremely funny, deviously plotted and wittily written murder mystery that subverts the norms of the genre and repeatedly attempts to give the audience theatrical whiplash as it sets up situations and characters only to reveal shortly thereafter that no one is who you thought they were and nothing is, well, quite what it seems.

The fluidity of Accomplice’s reality extends beyond the internal elements of the play to the structure of the play itself. From act one to act two, Accomplice shifts from a standard presentation to a completely meta one. Characters are not merely revealed to be other characters, but the line between character and actor is, ultimately, obliterated. It is an effective device and a testament to the play’s modernity, but the complete absence of any meta elements in the first act combined with the overwhelmingly meta nature of the second act could create some cognitive dissonance for certain viewers. I would like to have seen something, anything, in the first act that hinted at the sharp right turn the play would take after intermission.

As with any mystery thriller, the whodunit and who-got-it-done-to-’em elements of Accomplice are the heart and soul of the play. Knowing too much about the specifics before seeing it yourself would greatly reduce the play’s effectiveness and your enjoyment of it. For that reason, I refuse to divulge virtually any particulars about the plot or the characters. What I can say is that Accomplice concerns itself with two couples. The men are business partners, the women are faithful companions and everyone is scheming against everyone else.

David Menich and Kent Randell play the men, while Alexandra Lewis and Laura Kruegel play the women. Given the frequency with which one character is revealed to be another, each actor pulls double or even triple duty, and they do so with aplomb. Reasonably credible English accents give way to Irish accents, which give way to American accents before doubling back — often within one scene. As the actors morph from one personality to the next, their mannerisms and speech patterns must switch over completely and immediately. This is no easy feat, but Menich, Randell, Lewis and Kruegel manage it masterfully.

The program notes point out that the set design for Accomplice is bigger and better than anything Devil’s Thumb has attempted in the past. While the set is perfectly serviceable and shows dedication to production design and execution, it is no Taj Mahal. This leads me to the conclusion that, as with many startup theatre groups, Devil’s Thumb is working with a huge heart but a tiny wallet.

Devil’s Thumb’s modest budget and minimal track record make the success of Accomplice that much more notable. This company is a scrappy Cinderella story out of left field, and judging from its choices of upcoming productions, Devil’s Thumb deserves close attention through its third season and beyond.

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On the Bill

Accomplice plays through Nov. 19 at the Dairy Center for the Arts, 2590 Walnut St. in Boulder. Tickets are $15. For tickets or information, visit www.thedairy.org or www.devilsthumbproductions.org or call 303-444-7328.