“Bang. You’re dead.” It is June 28, 1914; Gavrilo Princip shoots the Archduke Ferdinand and his wife. World War I is off to a flying start. Or that is the impression one gets from grammar school textbooks. Of course history is more complicated than that, and Rajiv Joseph, Pulitzer Prize nominated playwright of “Bengal Tiger in the Baghdad Zoo,” has the ability to embellish history like no one else. Do not take him literally, yet, with all his verbal high jinx, sitting in the audience one gets the feeling he is on to something profound. Joseph has the rare ability to infuse his grave subjects with humor. Lots of humor, often dished out at such a rapid pace that one can only sit back and enjoy. No sooner did I think I had captured a line in Act I, than the actors were two lines further into it and I had lost both the thread and the end of the line. It is eminently quotable, but without a script the quotes fly by before they can be captured.
Dr. Leko (Todd Weeks) is examining a very anxious young man. Gavrilo Princip (Stephen Stocking) wants to talk about anything just to avoid hearing Dr. Leko telling him he has TB. Mostly, the obviously impoverished nineteen year old, obsesses over the fact that he has coughed blood all over the doctor’s fancy handkerchief and the fact that he has never been with a woman. The two preoccupations have equal weight. He has a desperate need for someone to talk to, someone to matter to. When he learns the skeleton in Dr. Leko’s office is a woman’s bones he gives her a name and imagines the doctor has somehow pulled the bones out of her. He is both impoverished and incredibly naïve.
We also meet the imposing, braggadocio, Captain Dragutin “Apis” Dimitrijevic (Patrick Page) in Dr. Leko’s office. After showing off his strong, healthy body, thug-like Apis threatens the good doctor with his knife unless he delivers five such consumptive boys to do Apis’ dirty work. The logic being: they are going to die anyway. The doctor is the classic image of the all knowing, reasoned, and reasonable, medic. But, as hard as he tries to resist, even he caves. Gavrilo and two other boys are told to meet someone – they do not know whom – at night, by a gate. They boast to each other about things like having once eaten a hot sandwich. They are all impoverished, naïve, and consumptive. They are ripe to be drafted into becoming the early 20th century version of terrorists.
Act I is tightly packed with dazzling dialogue. It comes so rapidly at you that your only choice is to sit back and let it wash over you. You need not get every word of illogic peppered with real facts with which Captain Apis seduces and threatens the boys – resign yourself, you will not be able to get it all – but you will laugh as you realize the parallels between this and the real-life mumbo jumbo by which poor boys in the middle east are seduced into being martyrs now. Patrick Page is perfect for the part. His swagger swelters and the verbal contortions are splendid. The young men are easily seduced by the verbiage, mixed with genuine hot food and a promise of a real train ride to Sarajevo.
In Act II there are ups and downs on the way to the inevitable conclusion. We all know that Gavrilo Princip will actually kill Archduke Ferdinand, so there is no suspense there. The scene where the three boys are dressed in real suits, for their first time, and riding in a first class cabin on the elegant train to Sarajevo is the high point. From the terrific scene design by Tim Mackabee, to the glee of the boys, it is a delightful scene that adds to the message. But the act as a whole does not pack the punch of Act I.
Long time followers of the Center Theatre Group may have seen the first edition of “Bengal Tiger” at the Kirk Douglas, then watched the more polished version that went to New York after its run at the Mark Taper. “Archduke,” like the maiden voyage of “Bengal Tiger, “ is full of promise and marvelous acting, but could still use some tightening. Even in its raw form it is entertaining and you cannot escape thinking about the parallels with current history with the incidents of terrorism and bombastic leaders. It is creative theater and well worth the trip downtown. Hopefully it will get another pass through on the script and I will be happy to check it out again.