BWW Review: Rajiv Joseph's ARCHDUKE Plays Out with Comedic Brilliance at MTF
Playwright Rajiv Joseph, best known for his critically acclaimed Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo has done it again with his world premiere play Archduke now onstage at the MTF through June 4. Based on fact and meticulously researched in Sarajevo where Archduke Ferdinand was assassinated in 1914 by Joseph and his director Giovanna Sardelli, the play has the ring of truth, but what catapults it into the sphere of brilliance is its dark humor that, as in any good satire, masks the gravity beneath.*
This black humor erupts at the very top of the play and keeps emanating throughout. So, it's much more than comic relief; it's rather a continuous comedic, almost comic book perspective at times, of a series of deeply tragic circumstances. When Gavrilo Princip (Stephen Stocking) visits a doctor (Todd Weeks) in a slum ridden section of Belgrade in 1914, the doctor tries to tell him that he has consumption. Gavrilo fondles the fine handerchief that belongs to the doctor, in which he has spit up blood, and is more concerned about ruining the hankie than about the fact that he is dying. Then as he touches the skeleton nearby and it starts to come apart piece by piece, he becomes hysterical especially learning that the body belonged to a woman. He is a virgin at 19, so when he asks how a woman's bones were extracted, his question is completely sincere. He longs for a woman and soon realizes that his opportunities are limited.
When tough Captain Dragutin "Apis" Dimitrijevic (Patrick Page) enters pretending to be there for a medical examination for consumption, the comedic tone switches. Apis is formidable, monstrous as he gradually makes it clear that he is there to persuade the doctor to give him 5 dying boys to prep for Unification or Death. His rebellious bande is out to assassinate the Archduke of Serbia and he wants to train the boys to do the dirty deeds, which will add, as Gavrilo so desires, "meaning" to their otherwise useless lives. The doctor is reluctant but at the point of a knife gives in.
Bring back the comedy in the following scene as Gavrilo meets Nedeljko (Josiah Bania) and then Trifko (Ramiz Monsef) in a warehouse on the dock. It's Beckett's Waiting for Godot all over again. Trifko tries to get the other two to come with him for a rendez-vous with the Captain. There, he tells them, they will get guns and be entertained with sandwiches and other delights. But they misinterpret and hesitate. The waiting period is play time and they scramble around like little kids not knowing which end is up.
When they finally give in and arrive at the Captain's residence, Sladjana (Joanne McGee-Lamb), the Captain's overweight slave of a servant with a seemingly bitter attitude and gruff manners acts as mother hen to the boys whose continually humorous display of childlike behavior has turned infectious. The Captain literally puts on a big, ostentatious act trying to educate the totally idiotic trio and has them "rehearse" the assassination. It's like watching the Marx Brothers or The Three Stooges turn the action into a three-ring circus.
In Act II the tone is more serious as the Captain gives Gavrilo his knife entrusting him with the deed. The three will take a train to Sarajevo, commit the assassination and then take cyanide to avoid police arrest and emprisonment.
The train is a new experience for the three and so it's play time again with overeating and exchanging silly comments. However, they begin to ruminate over whether they really would rather pass time with women as opposed to commiting the deed, and it seems like all of them may have changed their minds until Gavrilo gets caught in the moment.
In a quite marvelous scene the Captain and Sladjana enact the Duke and Duchess in their car exactly as they rehearsed it in Act One in chairs. The moment of truth arrives and Gavrilo takes over. He had told the others that he would rather commit murder, die and .... be remembered forever than live, die from consumption and be forgotten.
Under Sardelli's impeccable direction, the ensemble of actors are nothing short of astounding. Page gives an awe-inspiring performance as the villainous captain full of hate and rancor but always leaving room for laughter. Stocking, Bania and Monself are thoroughly delightful in their stooge like behavior. Weeks does a fine job with the victimized doctor and McGee-Lamb, unrecognizable as Sladjana, steals her scenes. There's a heart of gold lurking underneath the sweaty, brash and almost misplaced earth mother. A wonderful performance! Tim Mackabee's set design is just right, especially the elegant train interior and Denitsa Bliznakova's costumes are period perfect particularly the outfits for the Duke and Duchess.
Don't miss Archduke! It plays through June 4 at the Taper and has the mark of a great play: very good writing, great acting and sensational direction.
* In our world today this play is an urgent plea against terrorism, violence, abuse and humiliation of any kind.