- Associate Los Angeles Critic
Most people know about the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria, the event historically seen as the inciting incident of World War I. But what do we really know about the assassins? In Archduke, a new play by Rajiv Joseph currently making its world premiere at Center Theatre Group’s Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles, we look at the weeks leading up to the 1914 assassination and the unlikely path of a few young men who are recruited into terrorism at a particularly vulnerable time in their lives.
Gavrilo (Stephen Stocking) is a young man of about 20 who has just been diagnosed with tuberculosis by a well-meaning doctor, Dr. Leko (Todd Weeks), who has gotten a reputation for doing pro bono work for patients in need. One day Dr Leko gets a visit from Dragutin “Apis” Dimitrijevic (Patrick Page), a known murderer and leader of the military group that overthrew the Serbian government a decade prior. He is looking for dying young men with nothing to lose to recruit for his latest mission, and the doctor gives him Gavrilo’s name, as well as that of Trifko (Ramiz Monsef), another young man with the disease. Gavrilo and Trifko quickly realize they are in way over their heads when Dragutin reveals his plan to assassinate the Archduke, a plan they will carry out along with another man named Nedelijko (Josiah Bania) and three others we do not meet. As Dragutin trains and prepares them to deliver the deadly shots to the Archduke and his wife, after which they will ingest cyanide, which he claims will cement their status as martyrs, the three young men struggle to come to terms with the magnitude of what they are about to do.
Archduke is a surprisingly comedic play given the subject matter. The trio of assassins is presented as not the brightest, resulting in lengthy scenes of physical comedy that center around them fumbling a bomb or accidentally dismantling a model skeleton in the doctor’s office. These are young, inexperienced (many laments over never having been with a woman are heard), confused men who have been given an unspecified remaining amount of time to live, and Dragutin preys on their vulnerability. While the characters are certainly humanized throughout, it is a bit like watching the Three Stooges plot to commit one of the most high profile assassinations of all time.
The comedy is very successful in a production expertly directed by Giovanna Sardelli. The cast of six (completed by Joanne McGee as Sladjana, Dragutin’s housekeeper) is spot on, garnering near-constant laughs from the audience. Page, a veteran of the Broadway stage, is fantastic as his larger-than-life character, who comes off a bit like Captain Hook had he casually and frequently talked about disemboweling people. The set (Tim Mackabee) is innovative and stunning and actually prompted a well-deserved round of applause for the reveal of its pièce de résistance in act two, the train the assassins take to Sarajevo.
While I was certainly familiar with the basics of the assassination of the Archduke going in, I was foggy on the specifics. After brushing up on my history, I can imagine the play would be a very different journey for those who remember the details of how the assassination went down and who was ultimately responsible. If you don’t quite recall, there is a bit of suspense, particularly as the characters’ opinions keep fluctuating, whereas otherwise it is more just a story of how ordinary people can come to be involved in extraordinary events, shining a light on a less-considered point of view.
Overall, Archduke is a highly entertaining, well-staged piece of theater, although it does have a few shortcomings. A lot of scene space is reserved for physical comedy, and yet key emotional character turns happen offstage. Also, the tone of the ending is inconsistent with the rest of the play and while I understood its intention, it was a bit unsatisfying and even slightly confusing. Further to the point of being unsatisfying, you can’t introduce a bomb in the first act only for it not to go off in the second. One has to wonder if this is yet another example of Hamilton’s influence, given the focus on both history and on telling well-known events from an alternate perspective, showing everyone has a story that is usually more complex than meets the eye. While it will likely take on a different meaning for history buffs, Archduke is a very clever play, expertly produced by Center Theatre Group.
Archduke runs through June 4th at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles. The running time is 2 hours and 15 minutes including one intermission. Tickets start at $25 and can be purchased at www.centertheatregroup.org. Photo credit: Craig Schwartz.
Erin Conley is an Associate Los Angeles Critic for OnStage. After attending college at Boston University, Erin moved to Los Angeles, where she works in television and attempts to fill the NYC-shaped hole in her heart by attending as many theater productions as possible. She began writing about theater and television on her personal blog, On Stage & Screen, last year and is excited to share her passion with a larger audience. You can follow her on Twitter @Erinsk8