The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand by a Serbian in Sarajevo touched off the first World War, according to many historians. Playwright Rajiv Joseph’s “Archduke,” which opened Sunday, May 7, 2017, at the Mark Taper Forum, offers a mix of history and levity while ambitiously looking at the terrorists recruited for the pre-WWI shooting. The resulting play offers an unusual tragicomical spin, albeit an uneven one, on the events leading to the assassination, real and imagined.
“Archduke” explores the journey from individual hardship to desperation and public acts of terrorism. This was 100 years before the current recruitment efforts by the Islamic State, al-Qaeda, and other contemporary militant groups.
In “Archduke,” three young men in 1914 Belgrade are struggling to get by when they are diagnosed with tuberculosis and imminent death. Having nothing to lose and little time to live, they are perfect recruits to strike a blow against the Austro-Hungarian regime on behalf of the Serbian people. Their recruiter from the Black Hand military society, Colonel Dragutin “Apis” Dimitrijevic, repeats a mantra about the “suffocating grip” of the regime. He gives the trio visions of themselves as avenging agents for their people, coaxing them to be unforgotten as “figures of history” in the face of their certain death.
While the murder of the Archduke did take place largely as presented, the play takes liberty with various facts. For example, Joseph does have Gavrilo Princip as the eventual assassin here, but Gavrilo did not have tuberculosis at the time. He contracted the illness in prison. Joseph may have been better off developing characters far more loosely based on the real men (i.e., not using their names) or sticking to the facts.
While some themes in “Archduke” are relevant today, the play needs work. The result has some overly long passages from Apis, way too much slapstick shtick involving a skeleton, and overdoes the country bumpkin innocence of the three men.
Joseph spent many years on his first major production, “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo.” It was at the Center Theatre Group’s Kirk Douglas Theatre one year, then the Mark Taper Forum the next, before eventually becoming a success on Broadway.
Bringing the Story to Life
The sympathetic, earnest performance of Stephen Stocking as Gavrilo is one element holding the six-character play together. He conveys fear, innocence and determination.
Patrick Page is effective when playing the colonel as a menacing tyrant seeking out and brainwashing those with TB to sacrifice their lives to gain Serbian independence. His monologues go on too long and the radicalization of his followers is a big leap, but Page is fun to watch.
Ramiz Monsef is also noteworthy as one of the ill trio, wavering between acting as Apis’ thug and a shared adolescent. Also, Joanne McGee offers comic relief when things get serious with her turn as Apis’ intractable servant.
One other star of the show is the scenic design by Tim Mackabee. The tremendously large map hangs over the men menacingly presenting a massive Austrian-Hungarian empire. In the second act, the luxury train set is great!
The tragicomedy “Archduke,” does make one think about the exploitation that fuels much of the world’s terrorism in spite of its pseudo-factual look at the shooting credited with starting WWI. The play may not be perfect, but it is promising. “Archduke” will be at the Mark Taper through June 4.
By Dyanne Weiss
Performance May 7
Center Theatre Group: Performances Have Begun for The World Premiere of “Archduke”At The Mark Taper Forum Through June 4, 2017
Performances: From Baghdad to Sarajevo— And Back To Center Theatre Group, An Interview With Playwright Rajiv Joseph
Los Angeles Times: Diary of a world premiere: Join playwright Rajiv Joseph as the curtain rises on his ‘Archduke’
Photos by Craig Schwartz, courtesy of Center Theatre Group/Mark Taper Forum. Top, L-R: Stephen Stocking, Patrick Page, Ramiz Monsef and Josiah Bania in the world premiere of Rajiv Joseph’s “Archduke.” Insert, Stephen Stocking (center) as Gavrilo takes aim in “Archduke.”