As the lights came up signaling intermission, the savvy woman beside me who happened also to be my wife loudly proclaimed, “That’s a play!”
Her unfettered enthusiasm reflected not only the considerable quality of Archduke, whose First Act we had experienced and thoroughly enjoyed, it also reflected a contrast with the theatrical production we had endured the night before, which, owing to its deficiency in nuance and understanding (plus an surfeit of graphic “pregnancy termination”) was, of course, not “not a play”, just a less satisfactorily realized one. Dr. M’s delighted response to Archduke provided a collective – if two people qualifies as “collective” – measure of relief. I don’t know if we could have handled two theatrical unpleasantnesses in a row.
Not wanting to beat a dead horse – although live horses rarely stick around to suffer the consequences – as opposed to being an unknown quantity in a pre-purchased theater package, Archduke was a play I specifically wanted to see. My research revealed that the play encouragingly met my “Trifecta of Relevant Criteria” – the play’s subject matter – the assassination of Archduke Leopold which led directly to World War I (or as bandleader Lawrence Welk mistakenly called it, World War “I” – was of personal interest to me, our newspaper theater critic had given it a positive review, and the reviewer also reported that the play was funny.
(The remaining practical criterion? Tickets were available, which, if they hadn’t been, would have made Archduke a production of interest we were unable to attend. Which happens all the time. “Let’s go.” “There’s no tickets.” “What’s on television?”)
One final word about Dry Land, the Ruby Rae Spiegel “do-it-yourself-abortion-play” we had sat uncomfortably through the evening before. The playwright, circa twenty when she wrote Dry Land, had a knowing grasp of contemporary high schooler mannerisms and patois. But something important at this point in her development as a playwright was, for me, missing.
It is the difference, it later occurred to me, between a photograph and an oil painting. What was missing for me was “interpretation.” Cribbing my traditional standard, Ruby Rae Spiegel had delivered the “What” of the play – the narrative storyline and appropriate characters – but was severely lacking in stylistical “How.”
Archduke’s “What”, triggering a world war more than qualifies as “That’s interesting”, earning a “Big Check” for “reverberating import.” What made the savvy audience member sitting beside me go, “That’s a play!”, however, was its bold and imaginative “How.”
Archduke’s intention is to portray the inherent craziness of modern day terrorism, back then and resonatingly today. Acknowledging an absurdist character of the murderous enterprise, Archduke underscores the behavioral lunacy with rambunctious comedy? The result of this unlikely recipe, writes L.A. Times Charles McNulty, is that “The comic energy carries the characters to their tragic finish line.”
Manic physical comedy examples, ranging from slapstick “bomb dropping” to herky-jerky physical movements? – you had to be there to experience their jolting electrical “zizz.” But here’s a rib-tickling example of the play’s manic verbal juxtapositions:
A young man, and destined assassin, is diagnosed with terminal tuberculosis. As his compassionate doctor struggles to get him to come to terms with his imminent demise, the young patient, focusing on what he’s been told is a female skeleton adorning the doctor’s examining room, becomes obsessed with the question,
“How did they get the bones out of her body?”
This dying youngster, and several others of his tubercular ilk, are recruited to assassinate the Archduke, the impending “Duke-icide” sold, by their revolutionary recruiter, not via political persuasion, but on the enticement of adventure, historical immortality and the reality of “Hey, I’m dying anyway; why not take out an Archduke before I succumb?”
In the successful interweaving of the writing and accompanying physical action, I detected an enhancing creative relationship between playwright Rajiv Joseph and director Giovanna Sardelli (who have collaborated before and are scheduled to collaborate again, so it’s not just me who thinks they have an enhancing relationship, Joseph and Sardelli seem to think so as well.)
The production of Archduke revealed two artists possessed with complementary sensibilities. It’s like they are imagining with the same brain, reminiscent of (playwright) Neil Simon and (director) Mike Nichols, the director lifting the writer’s intentions to a celestial level. (Most Notable Example: The Odd Couple.)
Archduke’s Second Act was diminishingly impressive, maybe because I eventually tired of stylistical “conceit”, maybe because they ran out of imaginative variations, or maybe the plot – derived from history whose actual outcome is therefore unalterable – Davy Crockett died at the Alamo, the Archduke took one in the head in Sarajevo – I mean, we are heading for a “pre-known” resolution, so so much for the elevating suspense.
At any rate – and this was a “World Premier” so there may be ameliorating rewrites down the line – you see a crackling First Act – you’ve had a pretty good night at the theater. (I recall the memorable First Act of Sweet Charity. The Second Act was Michelangelo handing the brushes to his apprentices, but oh, that wonderful First Act.)
In one night, our shaken faith in the theater was gloriously restored.
We just have to steer clear of those theatrical packages.