You will be redirected back to your article in seconds

L.A. Theater Review: Rajiv Joseph’s ‘Archduke’

The playwright behind 'Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo' returns with an amusing, if overly simplistic look at the buffoons who started World War I.

Josiah Bania, Joanne McGee, Ramiz Monsef, Patrick Page, Stephen Stocking, Todd Weeks.

How do you make a comedy about the absurdity of modern terrorism? For bold, outside-the-box American playwright Rajiv Joseph (“Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo”), you set the satire a century earlier, allowing the trio of buffoons responsible for the 1914 assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie to stand in for the ignorant, easily pliable suicide bombers hatching such plots today — that way, no one can cry, “Too soon!”

Commissioned by Center Theater Group on the occasion of its 50th anniversary, Joseph’s slyly relevant new period dramedy “Archduke” ends where most accounts of World War I begin: with the death of the Austro-Hungarian heir. As any elementary school graduate can tell you, Franz Ferdinand’s assassination was the spark that set the whole world on fire. Some may even recall the name of the young radical, Gavrilo Princip, who pulled the trigger. But Joseph is fairly safe in assuming that we retain little else about Princip and his cohorts, their cause or the man who sent them on their mission.

Thus, he’s free to invent, imagining whatever backstory he pleases. Where others might have turned the lead-up into a thriller or history lesson — or even a cheeky musical, à la Sondheim’s “Assassins” — Joseph opts to make his point via laughter. Gavrilo becomes a naïve young tuberculosis patient (in reality, he died of the condition in jail four years later), one of three recruited by Serbian nationalist Dragutin Dimitrijevic (Patrick Page), aka “Apis” or “The Bear,” a rogue military officer who’s no stranger to assassinations. (His boastful backstory is surprising to begin with, but gains depth with each retelling).

The play opens on Gavrilo (Stephen Stocking) with blood already on his hands. He has gone to see Dr. Leko (Todd Weeks), who performs free examinations for poor young men. Consumption is on the rise, and Leko can’t seem to get Gavrilo’s attention to deliver the diagnosis. The boy is slender, shirtless, barely there to begin with, and his skittish mind is working a mile a minute to change the subject: He talks of the blood-spattered handkerchief, confesses that he’s never known a woman, and grasps at the anatomical skeleton in the corner of the office, causing its bones to collapse all over the floor in an expertly choreographed slapstick routine.

The audience finds itself laughing at this young man when they might otherwise be wincing at the death sentence that he’s just received — but that’s typical of Joseph, who uses laughter (and even seemingly meaningless chatter) in disarming and unexpected ways. Leko’s next patient is Apis, who strides into his office like a general declaring this new territory for himself. Apis submits to an examination, but has come for something else: to bully the doctor into sending him five sturdy “lungers,” terminal young tuberculosis patients to carry out his plot.

That will be revealed in time, though Joseph knows we’ll put two and two together long before the three young men on stage can. They’re hardly geniuses, much more like feeble-minded children, bumbling cluelessly in whichever direction they’re bullied. And Apis is nothing if not an effective bully, playing a puffed-chest officer like a distant cousin of Charlie Chaplin’s great dictator. For the first half of “Archduke,” Joseph seduces us with comedy, poking fun at how scrappy Apis’ plans are, the thinness of his argument (that the “suffocating grip of Austro-Hungary” is responsible for their illness) and the pathetic susceptibility of the fools he has assembled.

How different are today’s suicide bombers? Or young American soldiers, for that matter? They are sold ideals of patriotism and duty and glory, and they are told what to do by men older and more manipulative. These characters may just as easily be mental cases as terminal tuberculosis patients, so dopey are their responses. And there Joseph treads a fine line, in a way that didn’t seem to bother the Mark Taper audience but deeply offended this critic. Disagree as we might with certain causes, it seems risky to suggest that they don’t exist — that desperate kids can be manipulated for the price of a train ride and a sandwich. Surely the man who shot Franz Ferdinand stood for something.

The second half of the play turns more serious, but the jokes keep coming, which makes the overall tone increasingly uncomfortable. Apis’ assistant, a stooped-over old Serbian woman named Sladjana (Joanne McGee, unrecognizable with her heavy makeup), has previously only been good for her Igor-like laughs, but now gets a long, odd monologue in which she seems to be telling Gavrilo to think for himself — something he has done, if just barely, the moment before the lights fall for intermission.

But he has been brainwashed, and the rest of the play reveals just how thoroughly this slight, sick, inconsequential shell of a man has been convinced to perform an act that will alter the course of history. The final scenes take place on an elaborately recreated sleeper car, the most luxurious thing any one of these boys — Gavrilo, Nedeljko (Josiah Bania) or Trifko (Ramiz Monsef, who also appeared in Joseph’s “Guards at the Taj”) — has ever experienced. They are bound for Sarajevo, and their respective fates. Gavrilo observes how the world’s smaller than it used to be. At first, it seems like he’s merely killing time, but Joseph recasts the words in the context of their mission, and suddenly, idle talk assumes great poignancy.

“Archduke” doesn’t feel as earth-shattering or ambitious as “Bengal Tiger” or “Guards at the Taj,” but it bears certain key similarities. Once again, Joseph has turned the spotlight of world history upon the comical, inadvertently profound side characters, except that in this case, small men who would have otherwise been forgotten grabbed the spotlight for themselves. We lose sight of the greater tragedy, but we consider, in greatly simplified terms, how easily any man can derail the path of progress. It’s a frightening reminder, and one that doesn’t typically follow “Who’s on First?”-style comic shenanigans, but effective all the same.

L.A. Theater Review: Rajiv Joseph's 'Archduke'

Mark Taper Forum, Los Angeles; 317 seats; $95 top. Opened, reviewed May 8, 2017. Running time: 2 HOUR, 20 MIN.

Production: A Center Theatre Group presentation of a play in two acts by Rajiv Joseph.

Creative: Directed by Giovanna Sardelli. Sets, Tim Mackabee; costumes, Denitsa Bliznakova; lights, Lap Chi Chu; sound design, Daniel Kluger; fight director, Steve Rankin; associate producer, Lindsay Allbaugh.

Cast: Josiah Bania, Joanne McGee, Ramiz Monsef, Patrick Page, Stephen Stocking, Todd Weeks.

More Legit

  • CAROL CHANNING HERSCHFELD. Actress Carol Channing

    Remembering Carol Channing: A Master of Channeling the Power of Personality

    There was only one Carol Channing, and her outsize personality was a source of delight to many fans — and imitators. Gerard Alessandrini’s stage spoof “Forbidden Broadway” had many incarnations over the years, including the 1994 edition when an audience member was selected every evening to come onstage and impersonate Carol Channing with the cast. [...]

  • Editorial use only. No book cover

    Viola Davis, Lin-Manuel Miranda Among Celebrities Remembering Carol Channing

    Viola Davis, Lin-Manuel Miranda and Bernadette Peters are among the slew of celebrities taking to Twitter to pay tribute to late singer, comedienne and actress Carol Channing. Known for her starring roles in Broadway’s “Hello Dolly!” and “Gentleman Prefer Blondes,” the legend of the stage and screen died Tuesday at her home in Rancho Mirage, [...]

  • What the Constitution Means to Me

    Listen: How Things Got Scary in 'What the Constitution Means to Me'

    For a decade, writer-performer Heidi Schreck had wanted to write a play inspired by her experiences as a teen debater. But over the years the show started to develop into something both urgently political and deeply personal — and things got scary. In the Broadway-bound “What the Constitution Means to Me,” Schreck reimagines her speech-and-debate [...]

  • Carol Channing Dead

    Carol Channing, Star of Broadway's 'Hello, Dolly!' and 'Gentlemen Prefer Blondes,' Dies at 97

    Larger-than-life musical stage personality Carol Channing, who immortalized the characters of Lorelei Lee in “Gentlemen Prefer Blondes” and Dolly Gallagher Levi in “Hello, Dolly!,” has died. She was 97. Channing died Tuesday of natural causes at her home in Rancho Mirage, Calif. Her publicist B. Harlan Boll confirmed the news. He wrote, “It is with [...]

  • 'What the Constitution Means to Me'

    'What the Constitution Means to Me' Transfers to Broadway

    “What the Constitution Means to Me,” a buzzy Off-Broadway production that counts Hillary Clinton and Gloria Steinem among its fans, is making the move uptown. The play will come to Broadway this spring for a 12-week limited run at the Helen Hayes Theater. “What the Constitution Means to Me” is one part civics lesson, one [...]

  • Choir Boy review

    Broadway Review: 'Choir Boy'

    Honestly, I was afraid that “Choir Boy” — the sweetly exuberant account of a gifted prep school boy’s coming of age, written by “Moonlight” Oscar winner Tarell Alvin McCraney — would be swallowed up in a Broadway house, after winning us over in an Off Broadway staging in 2013.  But aside from the odd set [...]

  • Jason Robert Brown

    Listen: How Ariana Grande Got Jason Robert Brown to Madison Square Garden

    Broadway composer Jason Robert Brown never expected to find himself performing onstage at Madison Square Garden. But he did — thanks to his pal Ariana Grande. Brown met Grande before she was a superstar, when she was in the 2008 Broadway cast of his teen musical “13.” The two have kept in touch ever since [...]

More From Our Brands

Access exclusive content