Monday, May 15, 2017

Douglas Messerli | "Accidents of History" (on Rajiv Joseph's Archduke)

accidents of history
by Douglas Messerli

Rajiv Joseph (author), Giovanna Sardelli (director) Archduke / Los Angeles, Mark Taper Forum, the performance I saw was on Sunday, May 17, 2017

Rajiv Joseph’s newest play, Archduke, is premiering now at Los Angeles’ Mark Taper Forum. Having missed opening night, last week, I saw the play last evening. I’m rather glad I waited. Los Angeles Times reviewer Charles McNaulty complained of some confusion in the play’s second act concerning the arch villain of this piece, Dragutin Dimitrijevic’s (Patrick Page) previous failed coup; and LA Weekly reviewer Deborah Klugman thought that the faces of the performers were poorly lit, yet neither of these problems seemed present in the production I saw. Joseph, notorious for his rewrites while the play is in performance, may have done some tweaking, while lighting designer Lap Chi Chu probably intensified the lights.

      Indeed, the performance I saw went pretty flawlessly, even if the play itself doesn’t quite hit the high metaphysical speculations of Joseph’s Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo or Guards of the Taj.

      What this new play accomplishes, however, is deep insights into the roots of terrorism, and a look back in history that may help us to understand some of the dilemmas of nationalism we are again facing today.

      The archduke of the title, of course, is Franz Ferdinand, shot with his wife in Saraejevo in 1914 by the Serbian terrorist Gavrilo Princip (Stephen Stocking), an event that immediately set off events that led to World War I and the collapse of the great Austro-Hungarian empire (for the social and literary ramifications of this event, see the essay on Marjorie Perloff’s book, reviewed below).

      Yet Joseph is not as interested in the historical facts—although they thread his tale together throughout—as he is speculating how and why a poor, starving, and quite innocent Serbian boy, along with others, could become involved with a terrorist group that could have such an international impact, the questions one might have as well for the men who flew airplanes into the World Trade Center and the Pentagon.

       Gavrilo not only ends up with blood on his hands, but begins the play with his own blood on a handkerchief loaned to him by his examining doctor, Leko (Todd Weeks), who has the sad news of telling the young man that he only as a few months to a year to live, suffering as he is by incurable tuberculosis. It is hard to know whether Gavrilo can really assimilate the news, embarrassed as he is by having soiled the doctor’s linen handkerchief, and fascinated and terrified by the skeleton of a woman hanging in Leko’s office. A virgin, Gavrilo is both shocked to see the insides of a woman before having been to experience a woman’s body, and, in a kind of perverse “dance with death,” he ends up dismembering parts of the skeleton.

       All the clumsy rube perceives is that everything he is has long desired: to eat a real sandwich, to love a woman, or anything else he might have dreamt of will no longer be possible. It is as if he has already died without having the chance to begin living. He contemplates suicide, but is no innocent he cannot even act on that. He is a man who now has no will left.

       Just the man for the Serbian military plotter, who gathers up such TB-ridden men, attempting to forge them into a personal army to revenge what sees as the scourge of Serbia, the wealthy and sophisticated Austro-Hungarian Empire. Threatening the doctor if he does provide the names of those suffering from the disease, Dimitrijevic seeks out his small army.

       Through one of his already converted would-be thugs, Trifko (Ramiz Monsef), Gavrilo and another young sufferer, the charming Nedeljko (Josiah Bania) connect up with Dimitrijevic; their meeting reads a bit like a short Beckett spot:


            “Are you the guy? I was supposed to meet up with a guy. 

            “I was just told to meet a guy here.” (something to that effect)


       Once Dimitrijevic has his three would-assassins in his presence, he feeds them a full banquet (presided over by his comic peasant cook, Sladjana [Joanne McGee]), pulls down a massive map of middle Europe and explains to them that the reason they are dying is the fault  of the vast orange spot on that map. Like a recruiter for ISIS and other groups today, the military leader takes these meek young men and carefully attempts to mold them into becoming martyrs for a cause they haven’t the intellect to even comprehend.

      But the fact that they may be remembered after their imminent deaths certainly does appeal to them, and before they know it they are being drilled on guns, daggers, and bombs—all which they are thrilled to even have, for the first time, in their hands. Even though their practice session ends in a wound to Gavrilo’s arm—a wound serious enough that Dr. Leko suggests he must immediately be taken to a Belgrade doctor for care, which predictably, Dimitrijevic argues against, once more threatening the only man in the play who seems to really care for these already dying boys.

       But the very promise of a train ride to Sarajevo, their first time on a train, so delights the trio that it is too late to back out—this despite the fact that Sladjana offers Gavrilo a going away gift of a huge sack of roots, meats, and vegetables that are good for any ailment, including constipation and, particularly, if they should have to leave the train before they arrive in Sarajevo. Gavrilo is still too innocent even to perceive her meaning.

       Act II of this historical tragi-comedy consists, at first, of the three peasants simple joy on being in a first-class state-room with real beds, and their excitement (along with Tim Mackabee’s charming set) is almost transformative, turning them almost into the kind of young workers we see in Hello, Dolly! dressed up in their Sunday clothes on their way to New York. Surely, we feel, these kids are not killers.

      And it doesn’t take them long to realize that they don’t want to become murderers, forced to ingest the cyanide pills their leader has given them. Particularly Trifko and Nedeljko seem not up to the task, suggesting they should first eat a hot sandwich or have sex with girls. But Gavrilo, almost a prude and perhaps infected some by Dimitrijevic’s misogyny, imagines still what it might be like as a martyr, a man to be remembered in the history books, when he knows himself to be a forgotten nobody.

      Before they can even come to their senses, the Archduke and his wife rise up in the audience to take the stage, meeting up, quite by accident it seems, with the would be killer—and history is forever changed!

Los Angeles, May 15, 2017

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