Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Jose/Silicon Valley

TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Review by Eddie Reynolds

Also see Eddie's reviews of Grease and Silent Sky

Jeremy Kahn, Stephen Stocking, Scott Coopwood
and Adam Shonkwiler

Photo by Kevin Berne
A gun shot. A royal assassination. A world plunged into a war that takes millions of lives. A war that ushers in the conditions for an even greater hell of war, genocide, and global upheaval a generation later.

That initial gun shot and its hapless, men-still-boys perpetrators are the unlikely subjects of a laugh-out-loud retelling of one of history's darkest moments—World War I's initiating assassination of the Archduke Ferdinand. Pulitzer Prize finalist Rajiv Joseph explores in his 2017 Archduke—a play that was the hit of TheatreWorks's 2016 New Works Festival—how that one shot that changed everything forever had such ridiculously tragic beginnings. In doing so, the play that premiered at Los Angeles' Taper Forum and has now been reworked by the playwright for its opening at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley also lays bare some of the same tragi-comedy aspects of how in our present world, the disenfranchised can be so easily marginalized and neglected to the point that they become vulnerable for the most horrible of deeds.

First one and then a second wide-eyed, cautiously moving young man arrive in an echoing, dilapidated, and threateningly dark warehouse, each asking the other, "You the guy?" Eyeing each other suspiciously, they minute-by-minute reveal one more critical bit of information about themselves, only to retreat back into a dark corner of silence before venturing out again to share and learn more.

A doctor each has visited to find out why he is coughing up blood has sent them here, telling one of them that he will meet someone who will talk to him about "the meaning of life." That same, soft-spoken boy, Gavrilo, shows the more brash and for-the-moment bolder boy "the prettiest thing I ever had," an embroidered handkerchief the doctor gave him—a handkerchief now covered in his own coughed-up blood. The late teens soon discover they both have been diagnosed with something called "bits and pieces" or "the red and yellow" and are now "lungers." In other words, they each have maybe a month to live having contracted one of the most dreaded diseases in 1914 Serbia, consumption.

With death probably imminent, these boys talk about what they are likely to miss in their lives: a coveted, hot sandwich; being with a woman; meeting a mother who dropped Nedeljko off as a baby at a local nunnery where he was raised. Nedeljko tells the inquisitive Gavrilo that being with a women is "like taking a bath with a bunch of rabbits ... nice at first, but then I don't know." Gavrilo says he just wants to find "meaning" before he dies while his new buddy bemoans, "I will never have it."

Just as the two are about to leave, "the guy" finally shows up, a big-talking Trifko who starts describing to the half-starved duo a Captain who will feed them a feast the likes of meat lasagna, potatoes and vegetables, and "sweets, pies, and pudding." Almost as good, he tells them how the Captain puts boys like them in a bed topped with a warm blanket where they will wake up the next morning, "still warm." But even better, Trifko shows them in the suitcase he has brought what they will get if they go to a "rendezvous" with the Captain (a mysteriously attractive word neither has ever heard): guns and even an explosive device.

To all this, the young men act like the boys they still are, whooping, jumping, rolling and tumbling as if still playing during recess in a schoolyard. That is, they play unbounded until Gavrilo picks up the metal-encased explosive device, first dancing with it and then dropping it, leading to a hilarious scene of panic as the boys wait for an expected, ear-deafening, life-ending bang that does not come.

Stephen Stocking, Adam Shonkwiler, and Jeremy Kahn each provide highly nuanced, intriguingly fascinating interpretations of their respective roles as Gavrilo, Nedeljko, and Trifko. The young men—all, including Trifko, diagnosed with the same, death-sentence disease—display in nuerous physical, facial expression, and vocal ways that are near impossible to describe in words, their varying degrees of cockiness, fear, curiosity, panic and hunger for both food and one last adventure. When they arrive at the so-called Captain's abode, a fully uniformed, high-stepping officer coddles them as "my boys," then barks in clipped, razor-edge welcoming remarks that sound more like commands.

They are immediately greeted with a table weighted in food, served by a hilariously irreverent, shoulder-slumped woman with puckered lips, snide side comments, and an independent spirit that tests her employer's patience to no end (Sladjana played by Luisa Sermol). The boys ravenously eat as if there is no tomorrow while eagerly raising their hands like school boys in a classroom as they try to answer the barrage of questions the strutting captain in stomping, black boots fires at them.

With a room-filling map of 1914's central Europe hanging above them, the short cane of the Captain pounds out his well-timed case of how the detested Austro-Hungary Empire has suffocated the three divided Slavic states of Serbia, Bosnia and Slovenia. He blasts questions like "Do you feel the suffocating grip of Austro-Hungary" as the boys look dazed and confused while trying eagerly to please the hand that is now feeding them well. The well-planned indoctrination continues as the Captain (looking and acting much like an eerie precursor of a generation's later Nazi and played by Scott Coopwood) begins to associate the boys' disease with an Archduke, whom he claims "is directly responsible for your illness."

And as fantastical and unsettling as it sounds, all during this bizarre indoctrination of these three young men who come in knowing nothing about the politics of the day, we in the audience continue to laugh—usually more in guffaws than just chuckles—at a situation in which Rajiv Joseph has somehow found humor galore in a dark and almost forbidden way.

The Captain is in actuality the historical Dragutin "Apis" Dimitrijevic who assassinated the Serbian royal couple in 1903 to overthrow the government and then orchestrated the murder in 1914 of the Archduke and his wife. He uses everything from closed-eye fantasizing to a pantomimed rehearsal to ready the boys' courage for carrying out the act they yet cannot really understand. In the hands of Rajiv Joseph and the careful, skilled eye of director Giovanna Sardelli, we continue somehow to laugh at the clumsy, near-silly proceedings and at these young men's awkward, scared, and oft-juvenile reactions even as we know the evilness that lurks under the well-orchestrated, mind-altering proceedings they are undergoing.

When they are finally on their way to Sarajevo, their trip becomes a luxurious lark where a first-ever train ride for all three once again sends them into playful, boy-like behaviors. The beautifully attired, wood-rich interior of their sleeper car is only one part of the impressive scenic design of Tim Mackabee, who has already shown us the dingy, dusty interior of the massive wilderness of an abandoned warehouse and the fiercely Serbic rooms of Dimitrijevic's abode. Far-off, sharply protruding spotlights from the sides and the back cut through dusty airs and then into otherwise darkened interiors of a stormy night in the Captain's house—just a small portion of the incredibly effective lighting design by Dawn Chiang. The cracked lightning she provides is met by thunderous peals of a night's storm as part of Teddy Hulsker's sound design, one that also includes such effects far-off gate clangings, echoing chambers, and a train's sounded journey through the night. As always expected, Fumiko Bielefeldt dresses each character in period and personality perfect clothes, enhancing both the young men's poverty backgrounds and their newfound, one-night fortunes as they head to Sarajevo as well as the almost clownish but absolutely diabolical nature of Dimitrijevic himself.

Rajiv Joseph's script is a nonstop journey of unexpected humor and events during the first act, keeping us as an audience completely off-guard in how he is approaching the build-up of a horrific event that ignited a keg of explosive-ready situations that had been building in Europe for a half-century or more. But in the second act, the journey becomes a bit more labored, especially as Dimitrijevic spends a late-night vigil at Gavrilo's bedside trying to prepare him for his fated, notorious role in history. While the first act's hour seems over almost before it begins, the second's seems longer than it should be given the time spent.

That said, the overall evening is one that cries for comparisons to our present times. How are acts of terrorism, violence against "the other," and border wars actually begun and by whom? How do young people become enticed to join killing efforts that in many ways have nothing at all to do with them or their backgrounds? How tragically ridiculous is it that totally bizarre, no-name characters in uniforms, titles, and medals they manufacture for themselves can hit upon just the right outlandish claims ("The Archduke is directly responsible for your illness?") that time and again lead men-still-boys (and now women-still-girls) to change our world for the worst?

Playwright Rajiv Joseph, director Giovanna Sardelli, and this stunning TheatreWorks Silicon Valley production of Archduke ensure we laugh hard in order to think carefully about how history too often tragically repeats itself all around our world in 2019.

Archduke, through June 20, 2019, at TheatreWorks Silicon Valley, Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street, Mountain View CA. Tickets and information are available online at or by calling 650-463-1960, Monday – Friday 11 a.m. – 6 p.m. and Saturday – Sunday, Noon – 6 p.m.