Loosely based on historical fact, Rajiv Joseph’s droll and penetrating Archduke takes place in Serbia in 1914, and opens in the months prior to the assassination of Austria-Hungary’s Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife, Sophie — an act that precipitated World War I and changed the world forever. The spine of the play is the relationship between three of the youths recruited to carry out the murder (there actually were seven), and the fanatical military officer, Dragutin Dimitrijevic (Patrick Page), who indoctrinates them. While the details are fictional, the characters, including Dimitrijevic, are based on real personages: Gavrilo Princip (Stephen Stocking) who ultimately fired the fatal shots; Nedeljko Cabrinovic (Josiah Bania), who threw a bomb that missed; and a third co-conspirator and friend, Trifko Grabež (Ramiz Monsef) — in this telling of the story, the most together of the three.
All three suffered from tuberculosis, and Joseph’s play begins in the examining room of a doctor (Todd Weeks) who tells Gavrilo that he’s ill and has less than a year to live. The sensitive and unworldly Gavrilo is slow to digest the news, and instead chooses to obsess over blood on the doctor’s handkerchief (his own), and the gender of the examining room skeleton (female), which offends his sensibilities as one respectful of the opposite sex.
Later, the good doctor is visited by Colonel Dimitrijevic who requests that the physician send him five of his patients to be drafted into service. When the doctor refuses, he’s bullied and threatened with his life until he buckles and complies. There follows an entertaining scene among the three unsuspecting recruits — innocents, basically, who’ve never been with a woman and for whom a hot sandwich is as close to the good life as they hope to get. They’re prime fodder for Page’s incendiary Colonel, a crafty true believer who tempts them with promises of food and a free train ride, while singing the praises of martyrdom and handing each a vial of cyanide.
Though broadly framed by historical events, Archduke easily transcends these particulars; its coruscating depiction of the manipulation of the unschooled by a predatory monomaniac is an unhappily timeless (not to mention excruciatingly relevant) phenomenon, and marks it as a play of considerable substance. Plus, Joseph’s characters are drawn with accomplished depth beyond their service to the plot.
The production, however, while strong in many places, is weak in others. Under Giovanna Sardelli’s direction, Page proves electrifying as a ruthless (and misogynistic) zealot driven by crazed macho fantasies, while Monsef, who looks first to be the Colonel’s henchman but turns out to be just another gullible kid, is on point from first to last. Unfortunately, both Bania as the slow-witted Nedeljko and Stocking as the pivotal Gavrilo — a 19-year-old whose quest for meaning in his life ultimately rubs up against his will to survive — deliver serviceable performances only, and the show falls short of what it could be.
Also, while Tim Mackabee’s scenic design unfolds cleverly in the second half, the action at the top plays out against a drab backdrop with the faces of the performers poorly lit in the design conceived by Lap Chi Chu. While it’s true these characters dwell in grim surroundings, they and the audience deserve more illumination.
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