Rajiv Joseph, a remarkable playwright with a wide-ranging imagination, is famous for his Broadway hit Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo for which he was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. Other plays include The North Pool, a psychological thriller; The Lake Effect, a tight family drama; Animals Out of Paper, set in the workshop of an origami artist; and the inventive, two-character play Gruesome Playground Injuries.
Archduke, now in its world premiere run at the Mark Taper Forum, reaches a century into the past to a key event that changed humanity forever, the consequences of which made the Twentieth Century the cruelest, most destructive era in human history. In the summer of 1914, a band of Serbian nationalists were determined to create an incident that they hoped would spark a revolution to throw off the rule of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Rajiv Joseph’s play distills the assassination plot to kill Archduke Franz Ferdinand, the spark that set off the First World War, into a tight, six-character play.
Gavrilo Princip (Stephen Stocking) learns that he has tuberculosis and hasn’t long to live in an opening scene set in a doctor’s office. The Doctor (Todd Weeks) does what he can for the stumbling, bumbling, innocent young man, and sends him on his way. Soon thereafter, the doctor’s surgery is invaded by a strapping, bull-like man, Dragutin “Apis” Dimitrijevic (stentorian Patrick Page), who bullies the doctor into recruiting sick young men doomed to die so that he can use them as cannon fonder for his nefarious plans. Using flattery and intimidation, Dragutin manages to collect two more consumptive youths, his nominal assistant Trifko (Ramiz Monsef), whose aggressive exterior masks a timid, frightened boy, and Nedeljko (Josiah Bania), a sweet natured innocent. As the plot thickens, this sadly endearing band of goof balls behave in slapstick ways calling to mind such well know trios as the Three Stooges, the Marx Brothers, or the Three Caballeros. But do not be deceived; Archduke is as much thriller as comedy.
The plotters repair to Dragutin’s estate to simmer the assassination plot. There they are cared for in rough peasant fashion by cook and caretaker, Sladjana (Joanne McGee), a put upon, not-to-be-messed-with general factotum. She is kind to the boys in a rough way.
The show speeds along very nicely, only loosing a bit of momentum in the second act. Once Dragutin sends his hapless assassins on the way to their rendez-vous with destiny in Sarajevo, the action deflates a bit without Patrick Page’s powerful, dominating presence. The three assassins become almost giddy in his absence.
The production, under the energetic direction of Giovanna Sardelli, is splendidly theatrical. The strident tones of an aggressively played cello (music and sound by Daniel Kluger) do much to raise the hackles of an audience. Costume design by Denitsa Bliznakova smacks of authenticity and defines character. The scenic design by Tim Mackabee, with lighting by Lap Chi Chu, is its own kind of spectacular. A soaring industrial-looking wall upstage sets a certain tone and expectation. The doctor’s office rolls off leaving a bare stage for some early scenes, then the wall flies out revealing Dragutin’s home and an enormous map of Central Europe as it would have appeared in 1914. In the second act, the metal wall splits left and right to reveal the exterior of a full-sized, early Twentieth Century railroad car, which soon revolves to expose a luxurious interior.
Archduke runs through June 4 at The Mark Taper Forum, located at The Music Center, 135 N. Grand Avenue in Downtown Los Angeles.