By Patrick Hurley
A darkly funny twist on history, Rajiv Joseph’s new play Archduke, making it’s world premiere at the Mark Taper Forum, is a slightly uneven but entirely entertaining endeavor into historical fiction.
Based on the events that started the First World War, namely, the assassination of Archduke Ferdinand, and a sort of behind the scenes look at the organization known as the “Black Hands” run by the stoic and intimidating Dragutin (A wondrous Patrick Page), the play, at least in Act One, creates the tension and dramatic impetus of a runaway train, leaning into the hilarity of the situation, while building cleverly toward a cataclysmic historic event that most people in the audience will be expecting; however the play falls short in Act Two of achieving greatness because the momentum is halted by scenes of exposition and subplots that don’t serve the engine of the piece.
The play follows three unlikely assassins Gavrilo (Stephen Stocking), Trifko (Ramiz Monsef), and Nedejko (Josiah Bania), who have all just been given the news that they are dying of tuberculosis. Enter Dragutin Dimitrijevic, a man who is leading a resistance against the Austro-Hungarian empire, and who recruits these three dying men to basically go on a suicide mission, in what could be considered the first major terrorist attack in modern history. With nothing to lose, the three men agree to die in the service of something greater than themselves. And also because they’re afraid to say no to Dragutin. Dragutin is the most compelling character in the play. He is of such singular mind and demeanor, that he comes across as part Bond Villain and part Mel Brooks character. He’s so funny because he’s so severe. He passionately spews political rhetoric with his deep resonating voice and assuming stature that it’s impossible to watch anyone else when he’s on stage.
The first act of Archduke works beautifully. It’s crafted in such a way that we get completely caught up in the action. We are watching Dragutin and his three unlikely assassins as they plan and plot how the assassination of the Archduke will go down. The ineptitude of the three young men, combined with the severity of Dragutin, and the hilariously added character of Sladjana (Joanne McGee), Dragutin’s sharp-tongued maid, we have all the makings of a hilarious comedy of errors.
Act Two never fully recaptures the energy and sharpness of the first act. It takes too long to get back to the story of the three young men, and their train ride to Sarajevo. And while still entertaining and beautifully designed by Tim Mackabee, it fails to live up to the promise that the first part of the play sets in motion.
Director Giovanna Sardelli does a remarkable job. The pacing of the play is spot on for the most part and there are flashes of brilliance in the staging, particularly the last five minutes of the play, where the climactic scene is handled with great precision. And the ensemble of actors are all terrific.
While this play is flawed, mostly because of the unfocused subplots that distract it from its main objective, rather than feed it, it is a highly entertaining and funny piece of political satire that seems relevant in our current political climate, though perhaps a little underdeveloped as a statement. There is potential for here for a bigger political appeal, and so it feels a little bit of a missed opportunity, but it’s also a lot of fun to watch.
By Rajiv Joseph
Directed by Giovanna Sardelli
Mark Taper Forum
Ticket Prices: $25 – $95 (Ticket prices are subject to change.)
Tickets are available: Online at http://www.CenterTheatreGroup.org
By calling Center Theatre Group Audience Services at 213.628.
Mark Taper Forum At the Music Center
135 N. Grand Avenue in Downtown L.A. 90012.