Inspired by the world changing events leading up to World War I, Pulitzer Prize finalist Rajiv Joseph’s new play Archduke bustles and brims with wit and humor, which counters the weight of its conclusion. While no intention was made to be entirely historically accurate, Giovanna Sardelli’s direction nimbly traverses the travails of three young men coming of age in a turn of last century Serbian hotbed.
Coursing with breezy, zingy dialogue throughout, the play begins in a doctor’s office, when Gavrilo (Stephen Standing), an earnest, unemployed young man is delivered a fatal blow via a consumption diagnosis. Stark realizations set in as Gavrilo and Dr. Leko (Todd Weeks) discuss his options. A skeleton hanging in the office imparts both looming death and a reverence for life, for it once supported a woman’s body, or “lady bones,” as Gavrilo calls them. He leaves the doctor’s office further adrift. Enter Dragutin “Apis” Dimitrijevic (Patrick Page), a leader in the Serbian military and the Black Hand, who coerces the conscientious doctor into supplying him with the names of local boys whose time has come.
Soon, Gavrilo encounters Trifko (Ramiz Monsef) and Nedelijko (Josiah Bania), who are also cursed with tuberculosis, and the trio wax philosophical, while punting around explosives and suitcases like Keystone Cops, and seeking meaning in their misfortune. Their lack of education, skills and future leads them to accept a dinner invitation to Dragutin’s house. With bravado and panache, Dragutin regales them with Serbian history and implores them to heed the call of duty, to assassinate Archduke Ferdinand. Undercurrents of a life unlived zips in Dragutin’s soliloquy on a “witchy” woman, and left him heartbroken, during his final push to convince the men to create a legacy, become history itself, and become martyrs. Unity and purpose are cemented when Dragutin presents each with a pair of their own black leather gloves.
Emboldened by a new wardrobe and a sizable per diem, the excitable boys embark on a train ride to Sarajevo, and it is a show-stopping scene, with excellent design from Tim Mackabee. On their journey to salvation, where do young assassins turn their thoughts while discussing guns, sandwiches and shoe shines? It is the hope of a woman’s love (or is it “black magic”?), which burns in their hearts. Who among them will hold out for it?
The humble cast of six are more than efficient. Patrick Page looms large as Dragutin, and is a stellar standout. The daffy innocence of Stephen Standing’s Gavrilo is both bewildering and endearing. Great timing and presence shroud Joanne McGee’s Sladjana, Dragutin’s housemaid, the sole female character. Todd Weeks’s Dr. Leko is sturdy and amiable. And, Ramiz Mosef and Josiah Bania, as Trifko and Nedelijko respectively, are physical, dynamic actors, and excel at stirring the pot, and the mind of Gavrilo.
At times, the play derails under the weight of the material, or meanders with goofiness until it reroutes to its abrupt and sobering end. Archduke serves as a reminder, as much as time changes and flies, it is ever the same, and Rajiv Joseph has combined time and comedy into a worthwhile dramedy. Indeed, the past is prologue, and, the question remains, where do we go from here?
Archduke is running now until June 4th at the Mark Taper Forum. It runs 2 hours 15 minutes, with one intermission. Tickets are $25 to $95, and can be purchased by calling (213) 628-2772 or online at www.centertheatregroup.org.