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Arts and Entertainment

'Archduke' Is A Comedy That Explores The Paths To War

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There were widely reported stories a couple years ago about how ISIS was successfully enticing impressionable young Americans and western Europeans into its repressive, violent orbit. We'd guess that that worrisome phenomenon was at least part of the inspiration for Rajiv Joseph's interesting new history-based play Archduke, now receiving its world premiere at Center Theatre Group's Mark Taper Forum downtown. The story revolves around three vulnerable young Serbian men recruited to take part in the assassination of Austria's Archduke Franz Ferdinand, triggering World War I and the collapse of an old world order.

Archduke is not, of course, the first piece by Joseph that CTG has produced. In 2009 his Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo premiered at the company's Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City and returned the next year for a longer engagement at the Taper. A finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in Drama, the Iraq War play eventually ran on Broadway in a production starring Robin Williams.

In Archduke, diffident young Gavrilo Princip (Stephen Stocking), who has just been diagnosed with a terminal case of tuberculosis by his doctor (Todd Weeks), is approached by the Serbian nationalist paramilitary agitator Apis Dimitrijevic (Patrick Page) to make something great of his remaining life. This, according to the men, will be accomplished by releasing the Slavic peoples from "the suffocating grip of Austro-Hungary. "Along with two similarly stricken comrades, Trifko (Ramiz Monsef) and Nedeljko (Josiah Bania), Princip is emotionally and physically trained by Apis to carry out the fateful killing in Sarajevo, a seven-hour train ride from their provincial home town.

On their luxurious journey in a first-class compartment, undertaken without Apis among them, all three young men entertain second thoughts about their assignment, considering whether to abandon their plan and instead go lose their virginity in a big-city brothel or maybe grab a gourmet sandwich. Though he is, initially, the least aggressive-natured member of Apis's crew, Princip ends up firing the fateful shots at the visiting monarch and his wife (if this is a spoiler, you might want brush up on European history a little before auditioning for Jeopardy).

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You might not expect such a baleful series of events to be full of laughs, but Archduke is a comedy from beginning to (almost) end and hardly even a dark one at that. The first act, especially, features the sensibility of a sitcom. Director Giovanna Sardelli does a very good job delivering the barrage of humor in Joseph's script while never letting us forget that we're heading down an ominous path toward conflagration.

Playwright Joseph effectively delineates the character distinctions among the three young men who share a common predicament. Princip, Trifko and Nedeljko are all ultimately defenseless against the impending ravages of their physical condition and the leader who manipulates them, but they never seem like products of the same authorial mind in Stocking, Monsef and Bania's persuasive performances. Weeks infuses Doctor Leko, who tries in vain to appeal to Princip's innately sweet conscience, with both charm and pathos. The one you really can't stop paying attention to, though, is Page, both seductive and ruthless, emotional and steely in his resolve to ensure that his plans are carried out by the hapless pawns in his charge.

Set designer Tim Mackabee and lighting designer Lap Chi Chu create appropriately varying atmospheres as the play progresses, culminating in a lavishly detailed train car for the play's concluding scene. And Denitza Blaznikova's costumes perfectly evoke the social milieux of the early 20th-century Balkans.

Archduke plays eight times a week through June 4 at the Mark Taper Forum. Tickets $25-$95.