"You don't want to glamorize these individuals but you do want to humanize them. I think it's very brave to actually say, 'I want to create characters that you have complicated relationships to,'" director Giovanna Sardelli told the Weekly in 2016, about a play-in-progress by Pulitzer finalist Rajiv Joseph.
That project was "Archduke," then part of TheatreWorks' New Works Festival, now a full-fledged TheatreWorks production, still under Sardelli's deft direction. The show, which Joseph has revised for this regional premiere, is moving, bold, strange and empathetic. All that, and very funny besides.
The titular archduke is Franz Ferdinand, heir presumptive to the Austro-Hungarian throne. It's his 1914 assassination that often is seen as the spark that set off the horror and upheaval of World War I, forever changing the geopolitical landscape and ushering in the modern era.
"Archduke," though, isn't really about the doomed royal but rather his assassin, 19-year-old Bosnian Serb Gavrilo Princip (played in TheatreWorks' production by Stephen Stocking, who also originated the role in its 2017 world premiere in Los Angeles). Some consider him a terrorist, some a hero. In "Archduke" he's neither.
While the real Gavrilo was a devoted Yugoslav nationalist, in Joseph's hands, he and his fellow recruits Nedeljko (Adam Shonkwiler) and Trifko (Jeremy Kahn) are incompetent young buffoons who are pushed into the assassination plot by the charismatic, unhinged Dragutin "Apis" Dimitrijevic (Scott Coopwood), whom they refer to as Captain. Captain is vehemently dedicated to the cause of Slavic unification and the overthrowing of the Austro-Hungarians, but he's also obsessed with offing the archduke and his wife before his rival revolutionaries can. And, as in real life, the road to the assassination is paved with farcical errors and unlikely turns of events that somehow manage to turn the whole world upside down.
At play's start, young Gavrilo waits in a desolate, ruined library or storehouse, sent there by an unseen doctor, who's given him dire news. He's a "lunger" -- that is, suffering from terminal tuberculosis, his consumptive cough splattering blood on the doctor's clean white kerchief (far fancier than anything Gavrilo's ever used). The doctor has told him he can find meaning in his apparently brief and miserable young life by joining a cause greater than himself. He soon meets Nedeljko, a gormless if passionate fellow also sent by "Doc," and they alternately squabble and bond over their similarly depressing circumstances. Innocent and adolescent, they dream of perhaps one day seducing a woman, and reminisce fondly about the one time they've ever had the pleasure of tasting a sandwich. Their trio is rounded out with the arrival of Trifko, another naive (if slightly more experienced) lunger sent by Captain and bearing a suitcase of guns and explosives -- the better to lure these rather dim-witted boys. If they join him at the Captain's, he promises, they'll find not only the chance to use weaponry but also luxuries they've never known, including comfortable beds and plentiful food.
At Captain's country home, they're given a crash course in the history of the Austro-Hungarian oppression of their homeland, as well as gory tales of Captain's previous regicide exploits. His no-nonsense housekeeper Sladjana (Luisa Sermol) is something of an old-world wise woman, gathering herbs from the woods, offering sage advice and fostering superstitious ideas about cats.
I should mention again that most of these scenes are absurd and comic ones, filled with Joseph's brilliantly crafted writing, unique rhythms and excellent timing by the actors.
Intermixed with the comedy are moments of shocking brutality and sadness. Joseph foreshadows the terrible war to come by having his characters turn surprisingly astute and philosophical at times, pondering how the world seems to be getting smaller.
"What will happen this year or next that shapes a century? So much, I bet. Everything is about to happen. Everything is about to change," Gavrilo ponders in the second act. Heavy-handed foreshadowing, sure, but chilling nonetheless.
Gavrilo initially resists the idea of murdering anyone (especially when he hears the disapproving voice of "lady bones," the skeleton from the doctor's office whose tragic life has affected him deeply ... OK, you have to see the show to really get it, but trust me, it's compelling and wonderfully weird). But the Captain, along with some twists of fate, successfully pushes him to enough outrage to take on the grim task. And even though we know how the story ends, it still feels like a punch to the gut when we see it on stage.
Scenic design by Tim Mackabee includes a fantastic moving train (in which our antiheroes encounter the wonders of curtains and electric lights). Lighting by Dawn Chiang and period costumes by Fumiko Bielefeldt look great, and sound designer Teddy Hulsker gives ominous ambiance.
All five actors give tremendous performances, with the strutting Coopwod and the pensive, sweet Stocking especially impressive.
Joseph has clearly -- and successfully -- intended to draw parallels between these century-ago conspirators and modern-day terrorists, to show how the poor, downtrodden and hopeless in society can be radicalized into acts of violence, preyed upon by the powerful.
As the finale to its Tony Award-earning season, TheatreWorks has picked a winner with "Archduke," another testament to its value as an incubator for great new works.
Where: Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View.
When: Through June 30 (showtimes vary).
Info: TheatreWorks Silicon Valley.