BWW Review: ARCHDUKE at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
By Rajiv Joseph
Directed by Giovanna Sardelli
TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
The sequence of events that create a political assassin make for biting social satire in Rajiv Joseph's latest hit that closes TheaterWork's 2018-19 season with a literal bang. Incredibly relevant to today's terrorism, Pulitzer Prize winner finalist Joseph brilliantly illustrates how easy it is to create killers, in this case Gavrilo Princip, who's 'shot heard round the world' was the spark that ignited World War I. Rather than create a documentary drama, Joseph focuses on the absurdity of the forces that combined here, from the brainwashers to the hapless victims, adding dark comedy to the mix. Director Giovanna Sardelli and a stellar ensemble cast, and technical crew bring these circumstances to life with wit, humor and authenticity.
We first meet Gavrilo (Stephen Stocking) and Nedeljko (Adam Shonkwiler) is a dilapidated empty building, both men there to meet 'a guy' who will give them 'meaning'. The two are half-wit peasants who banter back and forth about eating a real sandwich, bedding women and perhaps getting a real job. Stocking, who originated the role in 2017 plays Gavrilo as an inquisitive type, posing question after question and questioning just what exactly is this mysterious 'meaning'. Nedeljko is religious, brought up by nuns after being abandoned by his mother. Both men have been recruited by a 'doc', who's told them they have consumption and soon die. Gavrilo relates a story of an anatomical skeleton both men saw at the docs, an unknown woman's bones that freak Nedeljko out. When Gavrilo attempts suicide (a mortal sin according to Nedeljko) he's saved by the ghost of this woman who tells him not to do it. This image will play a huge role in Gavrilo's radicalization.
Enter Trifko (Jeremy Kahn), the guy both men were sent to meet. He's packing heat and has a bomb which fascinates Gavrilo and Nedeljko. Offering the boys food, guns and a purpose, the trio set off to meet Dragutin "Apis" Dimitrijevic (Scott Coopwood), an unhinged, extremely passionate nationalist seeking Slavic unification from the Austro-Hungarian empire. Attended to by his superstitious maid Sladjana (Luisa Sermol), Apis begins the process of recruiting the boys to assassinate Archduke Ferdinand and his wife the Duchess Sophie in Sarajevo.
There's plenty of humor in the first act derived from the witless boys, their incessant bickering and lack of intelligence. Their manipulation by the hard-nosed Apis seems a foregone conclusion when he offers them simple pleasures like good food and the opportunity to ride in a train. Of course, they cannot understand the convoluted socio-political jargon Apis spews, but the three agree to the plot. Luisa Sermol comically represents the old-fashioned religious peasant, dutifully serving her boss but secretly wanting the boys to run away and not do the evil deed. Apis uses the boy's sickness as a metaphor of Austro-Hungarian oppression - they are responsible for the boy's imminent deaths. Their martyrdom will give their lives meaning, their heroism insuring their future remembrance.
It's a compelling case, but till Gavrilo has reservations. He can't shoot a woman, party due to the woman in his head, the skeletal ghost of his savior. But Apis will twist that one moral presence with his own bizarre tale of his act of regicide, the disembowelment of a king and queen, supposedly spurned on by the queen's witchy desire to be murdered. His free will destroyed by the maniacal Apis, Gavrilo and his compatriots take off on the train to Sarajevo and destiny.
Joseph, who successfully used dark comedy in his Guards at the Taj, carefully treads the fine line between slapstick and satire, not trivializing the susceptible buffoons, but giving them a semblance of humanity. Its an indictment of those who can manipulate the poor and uneducated for their purposes, the evidence of which we can see almost every day. This imagined backstory of the sometimes-forgotten side characters of history is both entertaining and though provoking. Sardelli's direction is top-notch, Tim Mackabee's set design stunning and Dawn Chiang's lighting, as always, superb. The ensemble cast take these absurd characters and elevate them from caricature to real-life bumblers. Archduke is another example of the fine work TheatreWorks continues to offer and a fitting end to a season that sees the company win the cherished Tony Award for Best Regional Theatre.
Archduke continues through June 30th, 2019 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View, CA. Tickets and information available at theatreworks.org or by calling (650) 463-1960.
Photos by Kevin Berne