Who knew that the murder of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria — the event that reputedly triggered the start of World War I — could be so ridiculously witty?
Apparently playwright Rajiv Joseph (“Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” “The Lake Effect”) did, and after many revisions and a life-altering trip to Sarajevo, came up with the current version of “Archduke,” which runs through June 30 at the Mountain View Center of the Performing Arts.
TheatreWorks Silicon Valley has been a staunch supporter of Joseph’s creation since it was produced as part of the company’s 2016 New Works Festival. Since that time, it’s gone through many iterations so that the current version is more cogent — and still very impossible-but-kinda-true.
What “Archduke’s” opening-night audience wasn’t prepared for was all the slapstick humor that came along with this particular data point of history.
Though the playwright deserves much credit for coming up with his wacky view of a historical turning point, the five fine actors in the TheatreWorks’ production — guided by the steady, discerning direction of Giovanna Sardelli — are what bring it to life.
As Gavrilo, the ordinary guy whose shot was heard round the world, Stephen Stocking brings a whole litany of poignant touches to his role. As he first walks on stage, he looks like a mousy, frightened man calling out “Hey,” and hoping to meet up with a “guy” who is supposed to help him find the “meaning of life.” Gavrilo has just come from a doctor who told him he’s dying of consumption (tuberculosis), with maybe only a month — or a year — to live. And when he coughs up blood into a unusual lace handkerchief, the audience thinks that this will be a sad scene.
Enter Nedjelko (Adam Shonkwiler), also young, also looking for a “guy” who says he’s going to give him a job – and also dying of TB. Shonkwiler’s Nedjelko is a litany of tics, twitches and other peculiarities. The way he hops around the stage, fearful of just about everything in life, is endearingly funny.
That’s when a relaxed, suitcase-carrying young man (Jeremy Kahn as Trifko) shows up. He is the “guy” the other two have been waiting for, though they haven’t a clue of what’s ahead for them when the trio leaves for a “house in the woods.”
Trifko has been sent by Apis, or The Captain, a political zealot who is recruiting “lungers” — young men with TB who he believes he can convince to sacrifice their lives for the cause of Slavic unification.
Scott Coopwood as the close-to-villainous yet willfully capricious Captain is a force to be reckoned with. He’s, by turn, loopy, playful, unsettling, beguiling and — most often — devious.
The dreary warehouse set of scene one swivels almost effortlessly to reveal a gargantuan map of Europe, with Austria and Hungary front and center — and the relatively small country of Serbia to one side. Resplendent in his black and golden captain’s uniform — with knee-high shiny black boots, the Captain tells his petulant, overbearing servant/cook Sladjana, to stuff the young men with meats, potatoes and mysterious deserts while he stuffs their minds with cockamamie facts about how the Austro-Hungarian Empire is choking their country to death.
It’s a masterful scene, made all the more so by the back-and-forth verbal battle between the Captain and the marvelously intractable and bossy Sladjana (the equally marvelous Luisa Sermol).
The tyrannical Captain blatantly blames the Austrian Archduke for everyone’s problems – even for the men contracting TB. Yet this farcical tale is swallowed whole along with the meal by the hapless, guileless youths. They readily accept the task of killing the Archduke in Sarajevo when he and the Duchess are honored in a street parade.
After getting rewarded with new clothes, a night of train travel in an exquisitely equipped Pullman suite and food (for some reason sandwiches are a big hit with Gavrilo) — they are committed to doing the dirty deed despite having some misgivings along the way.
Tim Mackabee deserves kudos for his terrific scenic design, and ditto Fumiko Bielefeldt for a wide array of costumes. Jonathan Rider helped the actors with the fight scenes (one is very realistic). Teddy Hulsker’s sound and Dawn Chiang’s lighting also work well.
At times Joseph’s play feels like sheer fantasy, weaving (as he does) fact and fiction without a clear delineation of which is which. It’s actually somewhat sad to realize that these young men have been willingly programmed to believe the Captain’s nonsense.
But what makes this such a winning play is its humor. The entire script is packed with line-after-line of absurdist comedy.
Here’s one example: Gavrilo bemoans the fact that he’s dying of TB and has never been with a woman. He asks the more experienced Nedjelko what it’s like having sex. The embarrassed Nedjelko blurts out, “It’s like taking a bath … with rabbits.” Wha???
So be forewarned that you don’t go to “Archduke” to see a serious play. Go instead for the exquisite acting, the splendiferous set — and a bellyful of laughs.
Joanne Engelhardt is a member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle and Theatre Bay Area. Email her at email@example.com.
Produced by: TheatreWorks, Silicon Valley
Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View
When: Tuesdays through Sundays through June 30
Tickets: $40-$100 with discounts available for seniors, students and educators; 650-463-1960 or www.theatreworks.org