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A CurtainUp Los Angeles Review

Do you feel the suffocating grip of Austro-Hungary? — Dragutin "Apis Dimitrijevic
L-R: Stephen Stocking, Patrick Page, Ramiz Monsef and Josiah Bania. (Photo by Craig Schwartz).
In 2016's Guards at the Taj, we watched two poor bastards whose tenure protecting the Taj Mahal ended in gore and misery. In creating the boys of Archduke who strike the blow that will set off the first world war, Archduke's Rajiv Joseph is fast establishing himself as a scribe who excels in placing ordinary men in most extraordinary circumstances.

If thoughtfully hip reconsideration of history is to become a theatrical subgenre, then Joseph will be considered its master. Archduke, in its world premiere at the Mark Taper Forum, showcases the playwright's flair for research, his intellect, his dexterity of language and his sense of playfulness.

Director Giovanna Sardelli guides a cast of six who know this music and how to play it. The experience is made all the more rich for the presence of Patrick Page as a zealous patriot and ringleader of the ragtag trio of assassins.

Quite a team they are. In 1914 Belgrade, a 19-year-old waif named Gavrilo (played by Stephen Stocking), is more concerned about cleaning up the handkerchief he has bloodied than in processing the news from the doctor that he will die of consumption. Nedeljko (Josiah Bania), similarly diagnosed, was raised by nuns and has developed an unnatural fixation for sandwiches. Trifko (Ramiz Monsef), the toughest of the trio, acts as recruiter and henchman. Dispatched to collect the doomed recruits rounded up by Dr. Leko (Todd Weeks), Trifko is part enforcer, part buffoon. Each of the three is in his late teens or early 20s.

The man who has assembled them feels that these three already dying "lungers"can be persuaded to martyr themselves for a noble cause. He is Captain Dragutin Dimitrijevic, who goes by Apis (The Bull) and is himself quite mad. His plan is to send the boys to Sarajevo to murder the Archduke Franz Ferdinand and then die. It's not such a crazy scheme, actually, given that these boys are poor, hungry, and easily impressed by things like a berth on a luxurious train or an elegant black leather glove. Offering a nice counterpoint to Apis is Todd Weeks as the weak but kindly doctor who treats all "lungers," patriotism be damned, but is menaced into sacrificing Gavrilo to Apis's cause

>From his through Guards at the Taj to this play, Joseph's writing suggests a knowledge of men; of brothers, soldiers, and those who don't know the difference; of what men wish for and how they understand each other. The interactions end up mixing camaraderie with sudden unexpected flashes of cruelty, all of it dramatically interesting. Archduke is a dark comedy, and it isn't. The three young conspirators are in completely over their heads, and are utterly bewitched by the blustery captain and his strangely maternal cook and serving woman Sladjana (Joanne McGee). Their obsessions over items like sandwiches, nuns and the fact that women have skeletons (“Is that a thing?” one asks) carry a certain drollness. Dirt poor kids that they are, Trifko, Nedeljko and especially Gavrilo are easy prey for a wild badass like Apis who can boast of having committed regicide and convince the boys that by doing his bidding, they will validate their otherwise meaningless lives before their brief candles flicker out.

Stocking, Monsef and Bania inject some great humor into their first recruitment meeting. What begins as low-level cloak and dagger morphs into something more cartoonish with the discovery of a homemade bomb in a briefcase that Stocking's Gavrilo has an unfortunate knack for dropping on the ground. Once Page's Apis reappears, strutting, preening, and whacking away at an enormous map of the Austro-Hungarian empire, the production practically bursts into flame.

Page has built a formidable career playing an assortment of leaders, sinners, heroes and monsters (many of the Shakespeare and Disney variety). Playing a man who is both a lunatic and in on the dark humor that accompanies a revolution, his work here is fiendish and charismatic.

Archduke may be ultimately Gavrilo's journey, but every Faust needs a Mephistopheles to spur him along. Page's Apis is that devil and then some and he makes an already strong play that much more exciting.

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Archduke by Rajiv Joseph
Directed by Giovanna Sardelli

Cast: Josiah Bania, Joanne McGee, Ramiz Monsef, Patrick Page, Stephen Stocking, Todd Weeks
Set Design: Tim Mackabee
Costume Design: Denitsa Bliznakova
Lighting Design: Lap Chi Chu
Sound Design and composition: Daniel Kluger
Fight Director: Steven Rankin
Dramaturg: Joy Meads
Stage Manager: David S. Franklin
Plays through June 4, 2017 at the Mark Taper Forum, 135 N. Grand Ave., Los Angeles (213)
Running time: Two hours and fifteen minutes, including one intermission
Reviewed by Evan Henerson

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