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To begin with, I must issue a disclaimer. I teach history, so a play which is ostensibly about historical people engaged in historically documented events pushes me to look at the thing first as a historian and then as a theatrical critic.
Thus, there are two ways to approach Rajiv Joseph’s new play at the Mark Taper Forum. “Archduke” is ostensibly a historical play, in that its characters were elemental in the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, which opened the door to the devastation of World War I. However, taken as such, it must be pointed out that the facts have been treated with a considerable amount of creativity.
Therefore, “Archduke,” as a history-based document, would be highly problematic. Rather, one must look at the underlying messages of the play, as it examines the nature of obsession, and the gullibility of the disenfranchised young. As such it touches more on what would inspire the young to politically desperate action in any age. Given this understanding, it proves both very funny and touchingly powerful.
The story must, of course, center on Gavrilo Princep, the bright and highly nationalistic 19-year-old revolutionary and assassin. Only in this version he’s none of these. Rather, this Gavrilo is a dim peasant whose surprise tuberculosis diagnosis starts him on a journey to find some reason for having lived. Taken in by a Serbian colonel obsessed with freeing his people from Austro-Hungarian domination, Gavrilo and his two compatriots are more swept up by the colonel’s hospitality and elegant lifestyle than by politics.
Indeed, it quickly becomes clear that the center of this piece is Colonel Dragutin Dimitrijevic, the historic founder of The Black Hand, the group responsible for the assassination. Here, “Apis,” as he is called, appears as a madman with ferocious powers of persuasion. Can he take three “lungers” – that is, young men with a TB death sentence – and turn them into a revolutionary movement? Through bombast, coercion and a taste of the good life, it appears possible.
Stephen Stocking looks remarkably like the photos of the historic Gavrilo, and his ability to balance the character’s unschooled childlike qualities and fatalistic objectivity in the face of so much emotion makes the play work. As Dimitrijevic, Patrick Page provides the perfect counter to the underplayed future assassin, making the colonel pound and rage and pronounce with an intensity which perfectly overwhelms the innocence of his “converts.”
Ramiz Monsef and Josiah Bania give Gavrilo’s two fellow tubercular innocents a truly charming combination of simplicity and live-for-the-moment happiness, making it completely understandable that they would debate which was more important: assassination or a sandwich.
Todd Weeks provides the sanity in all the madness as the doctor left unable to assist the young men in their illness, while Joanne McGee, as the colonel’s cantankerous servant, balances sarcasm and pathos in keeping the proceedings from becoming too cartoonish.
Director Giovanna Sardelli truly understands the interplay of the underlying messages here, and balances the humor (which is genuinely funny throughout) and the darker elements in creating a true ensemble. In this she is aided by Tim Mackabee’s remarkable set: at many points comparatively stark, but lush at just the right moment. Denitsa Bliznakova has an eye for using costuming for both character development and historical context. In combination, the results are powerful and deeply engaging.
If anything, “Archduke” is about the ease with which the intelligent, passionate, but obsessed can convince those with little to lose to do things which may seem incomprehensible to the observer. Move this forward and it can be applied to all forms of outrageous and deadly acts, from a white supremacist in a church basement to an ISIS convert putting on a suicide vest. And that is the serious core of the play, all the delightful humor notwithstanding. In the end this matters far more than the play’s many liberties with history.
What: “Archduke” When: through June 4, 8 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2:30 p.m. and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 p.m. and 6:30 p.m. Sundays Where: The Mark Taper Forum, at The Music Center, 135 N. Grand Ave. in Los Angeles How Much: $25 – $95 Info: (213)62802772 or http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org