"Archduke," the title of Rajiv Joseph's new play, sounds like the answer to a high school social studies quiz on 20th century European history. As I hope all of you remember, the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austro-Hungarian Empire, is widely thought to have triggered World War I.
Joseph, the daredevil author of "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo" and "Guards at the Taj," tells a story about the men responsible for this momentous murder in his inimitable style blending rambunctious humor with a global conscience and an empathy that heeds no borders.
If the play, which opened Sunday at the Mark Taper Forum, is more impressive in its bold outline than in its scene-by-scene execution, the comic energy of the writing carries the characters to their tragic finish line.
At the center of Giovanna Sardelli's starkly vivid production is Gavrilo, the shadowy historical figure who fatally shot both the Archduke and his wife, Sophie, during their ill-fated visit to Sarajevo. As sympathetically played by Stephen Stocking, Gavrilo is a hapless young man with faltering health, a good heart, simple dreams and no luck whatsoever.
"Archduke" begins in the office of Dr. Leko (a wonderfully Chekhovian Todd Weeks), who has just examined Gavrilo, whose condition doesn't take much medical sleuthing to figure out. After profusely apologizing for coughing up a stream of blood into a fancy handkerchief that belonged to the doctor's dead wife, he learns that he has tuberculosis and not much time to live.
Joseph imbues this encounter with a vaudevillian zaniness. But dark clouds of mortality keep the scene from devolving into shtick. Even Gavrilo's slapstick collision with the lady skeleton the doctor has on hand for teaching purposes has a haunting quality. The patient, a 19-year-old whose prospects for losing his virginity have suddenly turned dim, names this set of bones Dubravka, who becomes in effect the girlfriend he will never have.
Dr. Leko's next visitor is Dragutin Dimitrijevic (Patrick Page, firing on all flamboyant cylinders). A captain involved in the Serbian nationalist movement who goes by the name of Apis, he's hunting down "lungers," young men with TB who won't mind sacrificing their lives for the cause of Slavic unification.
Apis' menacing request for volunteers is one that even a doctor as decent as Leko can't refuse. Gavrilo and another afflicted young Bosnian Serb, Nedeljko (an endearingly rabbit-like Josiah Bania), meet at an abandoned warehouse, where Trifko (the excellent Ramiz Monsef), who acts like Apis' thug but is himself a fellow consumptive, tries to initiate these two innocent lads in a scene that mixes pratfalls with deadly weapons.
Joseph's style of antic mischief can get caught up in its own self-contained loopiness. The general through line of the play is clear enough, but the details of the story are sometimes overwhelmed by the comic mayhem. Making things murkier still, the intermingling of fact and fiction lends an unsettled quality to the characters, who suddenly have to stop their horseplay to advance a tale that has already been written by history.
The most vivid scene in "Archduke" takes place in Apis' home, where the hungry young men are scarfing down dinner as he lectures them on the way the Austro-Hungarian Empire is suffocating their country. Standing before a giant map of Europe (one of several fine touches in Tim Mackabee's superlative scenic design), he rabidly lays out his case as his recalcitrant servant, Sladjana (a hilariously bulldozing Joanne McGee), begrudgingly carts in dessert.
Performing with tremendous gusto, Page turns Apis into a kind of cross between Captain Ahab and Captain Hook. The characterization is so theatrically unhinged that it's hard to understand how the young men could take seriously the contention that the Archduke is directly responsible for their illnesses, but violence has a way of making people fall into line, especially in a world on the brink of a geopolitical earthquake.
No one wanting a fully accurate account of the real Gavrilo Princip's journey should seek it out in a play freely employing poetic license. Joseph, in a manner consistent with Shakespeare's example, uses history as a pretext to tell a story about the contemporary moment. His sympathy with these duped men, brainwashed into believing they are freedom fighters when their path is the dead end of terrorists, humanizes a subject that is as unfortunately topical as it ever was.
"Archduke" isn't calibrated carefully enough to cogently dramatize Gavrilo's radicalization. A scene in the second act in which the protagonist's soul is being contested by Apis and Dr. Leko brings in historical material about an earlier coup led by Apis that is more confusing than illuminating. Joseph has flashes of insight into the way these budding insurgents struggle to reject the gentle female voice inside them urging them to enjoy a sandwich and a roll in the hay. But history distracts him from fully imagining their inner lives.
The play is very effective, however, at making us feel pity for the way these hopeless young men are vulnerable to exploitation by a deranged patriot. Listening to these inexperienced teens talk about sex ("It's like taking a bath with rabbits," says Nedeljko), you realize just how much future they're giving up for a nightmare of glory.
Joseph may be a draft away from realizing his dramatic vision, but the scope of his imaginative ambition is always a tonic. And this first-rate Taper production — the last scene on a luxury train headed to Sarajevo is perfection — does this intrepid playwright proud.
Where: Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., L.A.
When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2:30 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 1 and 6:30 p.m. Sundays. Ends June 4. Call for exceptions.
Tickets: $25 to $95 (subject to change)
Info: (213) 628-2772 or www.centertheatregroup.org
Running time: Two hours and 15 minutes, including intermission.
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