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Theater Review: "Archduke”

L-R: Stephen Stocking and Todd Weeks in the world premiere of Rajiv Joseph’s “Archduke.”
Photo credit:
Craig Schwartz.

Cold-blooded murder isn’t funny. Neither is political assassination. But playwright Rajiv Joseph – who starred a talking tiger in his most famous work, Pulitzer Prize finalist “Bengal Tiger At The Baghdad Zoo” – is known for his offbeat approach to serious topics. His latest play, “Archduke,” offers a sort of farcical satire on political assassination.

Los Angeles’ Center Theatre Group commissioned this play after two successful runs of “Bengal Tiger.” Giovanna Sardelli directs “Archduke” through June 4 at the Mark Taper Forum.

Arguably the most famous archduke in history, Franz Ferdinand of Austria-Este (and presumptive heir to the Austro-Hungarian throne) was gunned down in 1914 by a young killer recruited by the duke’s political opponents, sparking World War I (this is greatly simplified, but I’m not writing history here).

Joseph’s imaginative retelling spotlights the political forces that wanted the archduke eliminated (represented by Patrick Page as thuggish and deranged Serbian patriot Dragutin “Apis” Dimitrijevic) and the three 19-year-old boys he recruited to do the hit.

The play opens in a doctor’s office, where skinny, poor and unwell Gavrilo (Stephen Stocking) is fascinated by the skeleton in Dr. Leko’s office. But he’s horrified (and embarrassed) when he spits blood on a fancy handkerchief that belonged to the doctor’s deceased wife. 

The doctor has no trouble making the diagnosis: tuberculosis. The prognosis: Not good.

Apis enters – ostensibly for a checkup – but first he gives the doc a long disquisition about tuberculosis as a “symptom of global, political rot” and “an inglorious reaction to the proverbial boot upon our necks.” 

Then he asks Dr. Leko (Todd Weeks) to send him several “lungers” to do his job.

The doctor’s “The hell I will” response is answered with a veiled threat. Apis ends up with three hapless lungers who are in search of work, not the promised glory, and are certainly not looking to murder anyone. 

The second act takes us to Apis’ house, where Gavrilo and his cohorts Nedeljko (Josiah Bania) and Trifko (Ramiz Monsef) get their instructions – and dinner, provided by Apis’ sardonic, no-nonsense cook Sladjana (Joanne McGee).

Stocking’s naiveté as Gavrilo contrasts with Monsef’s Trifko, who has already demonstrated his short fuse and violent tendencies.

Bania’s Nedeljko is in the middle, claiming experience with women (sleeping with a woman, he offers, is “like taking a bath with a bunch of rabbits”), but no knowledge of firearms.

The boys are less than thrilled at this job.

But these are naive, poverty-stricken kids, easily seduced by promises of weapons, food, women or – in this case – a train ride to Sarajevo, a new experience that promises food, beds and perhaps a little luxury.

The last scenes show off Tim Mackabee’s spectacular moving and rotating set that takes us from outside the train to inside a luxury cabin, complete with beds and food service.

Director Giovanna Sardelli has a terrific cast to work with.

It’s almost difficult to watch Page’s overbearing, preachy, crazed Apis; we’ve seen this type before. The trio of killers are familiar, too: poor kids in the wrong place at the wrong time. 

Is it really that easy to make a kid into an assassin? That’s one question “Archduke,” with its alternately funny and uncomfortable script, wants us to consider.

Just don’t confuse all of what you see here with history.

This isn’t as good as “Tiger,” but Joseph’s genius for making us laugh at things that aren’t funny – and think about our relationship to truth, integrity and commitment to a cause -- are still intact. And this is a terrific production.

The details

“Archduke” plays through June 4, 2017 at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles.

Tuesday through Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2:30 and 8 pm; Sunday at 1 and 6:30 pm

Tickets: (213) 628-2772 or https://www.centertheatregroup.org/