TheatreWorks’ newest play highlights all of the reasons why this local theater was honored with a Tony Award this year. Smart, moving and unexpectedly hilarious, Archduke tells the story of the three men that assassinated Archduke Franz Ferdinand, arguably sparking the conflict that became World War I.
The show opens with two tuberculosis patients in a warehouse. Naïve and searching for purpose, they are easily radicalized by “The Captain” who convinces them and a third man that Archduke Ferdinand is the cause of declining Serbian manhood and ultimately, their tuberculosis.
The show is surprising in many ways. First of all, despite being based in historical facts, the story never seems set in stone. At any moment in the play, it seems as if the plot might veer away from history and take a completely different course. Each character also seems like a real person that you might meet on the street, organically making their choices over the course of the play. The small size of the cast is surprising on its own. The show tells an intense story with only five actors, three of whom never change character. Even the set design has a surprise in store, turning completely around in the second act to transform into a luxury railcar.
The most surprising thing, however, is the laugh-out-loud humor of the show. Despite its grim subject matter, the show is genuinely hilarious. The script not only keeps the outcome uncertain, but also makes the characters interactions funny. There are plenty of shows that deal with serious topics that have moments of levity, but very few that are consistently funny without detracting from the gravity of the characters’ problems. Rajiv Joseph’s phenomenal script plunges the audience into the lead up to World War I and keeps the story entertaining and fun despite the increasingly dire situations on stage.
Still, the play would not work if not for the incredible performances of the cast. Adam Shonkwiler is absolutely hilarious as Nedeljko, bringing a child-like quality to the role that reminds the audience that his character is not even 19 years old, still more a child than a man.
Stephen Stocking is utterly convincing at Gavrilo. The audience can’t help but relate to him immediately in the opening scenes as he explains his desire for meaning in his life. Then, as his character is gradually radicalized, Stocking manages to take the audience along with him, allowing us a peak into how one man can be convinced so quickly to change his beliefs.
Scott Coopwood particularly stands out as the Captain, Dragutin “Apis” Dimitrijevic. Coopwood brings intensity and conviction to the role and makes it so easy to understand how he could influence the other men into becoming assassins. Despite bringing equally funny moments to the show, Coopwood shows the audience how truly dangerous his character is, both in terms of physical strength and psychological manipulation.
Archduke is a show that will make you laugh, make you gasp, but most of all it will make you think. Full of unexpected humor and gut-wrenching decisions, it is a show you will not be able to fully anticipate or forget. This is a show I would recommend to anyone over the age of 13 and one that any theater-lover isn’t going to want to miss.
TheatreWorks’ production of Archduke is playing now through June 30, 2019 at the Mountain View Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro Street. Tickets range $40 to $100 with discounts available for groups, seniors, educators and patrons under 35. Please note that this production uses stage smoke, haze and strobe lights.
Photos courtesy of Kevin Berne