The assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and his wife Sophie on June 28, 1914 is considered the primary cause of World War I. The Archduke was the heir apparent to the throne of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. His assassin, Gavrilo Princip, was a member of the Black Hand, a Serbian nationalist group. The assassination took place in Sarajevo almost by accident. A bomb attempt earlier in the day had failed when the bomb landed in a car following the Archduke’s in a procession. It was later, when the Archduke and his wife wished to visit the injured in a hospital, that their driver took a wrong turn and stalled the car while trying to turn it around on a side street. Sitting at a café ruminating over the earlier failure was Princip who, upon seeing another opportunity, walked up to the car and shot the Archduke in the throat and his wife in the abdomen, resulting in the death of both of them. Within a month Austria and its allies (including Germany and Italy) declared war on Serbia and its allies (including Russia, France and Great Britain).
Playwright Rajiv Joseph has previously written the political plays Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo and Guards at the Taj. For some reason he has chosen to write his latest, Archduke, receiving its World Premiere at the Mark Taper Forum, as a Marx Brothers comedy. Dragutin “Apis” Dimitrijevic, Serbian patriot, leader of the 1903 overthrow of King Alexander and head of the nationalist Black Hand movement, is the Groucho Marx of the piece. He cajoles and browbeats three young consumption victims, his own Three Stooges, into agreeing to carry out the assassination since they haven’t anything else to live for. However as political martyrs, they will be remembered forever. Playing the Margaret Dumont role in this political farce in Dimitrijevic’s servant/cook Sladjana. Joseph’s laugh-a-minute writing and Giovanna Sardelli’s slapstick direction have their desired effect—the audience is howling from start to finish. The action is so slapstick with breakaway skeletons, flaming puddings, oversized maps that I was expecting the assassination to be carried out with a cream pie in the face. The problem with this approach is that when Joseph attempts to have a serious moment, the audience keeps laughing because that is what they have been primed to do. It’s a shame Joseph has chosen to write this seminal moment in history as a farce. It seems a major missed opportunity to make a statement with the rise of nationalism around the world at present. The world is still recovering from the after effects of WWI, specifically how the former Austro-Hungarian and Ottoman Empires were carved up into countries without much thought given to the long standing underlying nationalistic problems. The Balkans and especially the Middle East remain powder kegs to this day. It’s my fear that younger audiences, especially Millennials for whom history seems to only encompass yesterday’s text messages not events that happened a century ago, will accept this laugh fest as reality. They will believe World War I began with a belly laugh not a gunshot. In this era of alternative facts and fake news, it’s easy to come to that conclusion. In Joseph’s hands, the Archduke has been assassinated once more.
Patrick Page as Dimitrijevic is the perfect ringmaster for this circus of clowns, appropriately menacing as well as comically over the top. Joanne McGee as Sladjana gives as good as she gets; she’s no mere comic foil, more of a Noel Coward maid rather than an inept dowager. Stephen Stocking makes the most of his few sensitive moments as Gavrilo. Rami Monsef and Josiah Bania play their roles as stooges well. Todd Weeks as Dr. Leko is the straight man of the piece and as such doesn’t leave much of an impression. Tim Mackabee’s scenic design is a major plus.
Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave. in Los Angeles. Ends June 4. www.centertheatregroup.org.