After shaking hands with renowned playwright Rajiv Joseph, my cheeks blushing, burning the hottest shade of pink, I faded back into reality, nearly shivering. I was so nervous, I can't even remember most of what was said (although I'm sure everything I had to say was probably very dumb and everything he had to say was probably very prolific, stately and award-worthy). Drifting back into consciousness it crossed my mind that I had read nearly every one of his plays. Not binge-read, like I have with some of my favorite contemporary playwrights, but actually stumbled upon over the years. In academic classes. In scene study. As recommended by the staff at Samuel French. As suggested by the Mar Vista librarians, acclimated with my constant renewals from the theatre literature section. There were just a few recent and not widely published plays of his that I hadn't read. And I think that's why I was so in awe. I'm not a super-fan or anything, who made a point to read every piece of work by their favorite artist. His work just happened to find its way into my life naturally, and often.
I found myself recovering from this experience one breezy evening out on the Mark Taper Forum plaza before a preview performance of Archduke, not long before opening. I fanned myself back to my natural complexion in the bathroom and fetched myself a cocktail before heading in. Necessary. Aside from all that nonsense, I was aware this show, based on real-life events and characters that would trigger the beginnings of World War 1, had been going through a number of changes throughout the preview process, leading up to the big night.
Since my visit, I have spent a lot of time processing this play. I attended a meeting with colleagues who would be leading discussions on this show, breaking the history, themes and questions it raised down in full. I attended a post show Q & A with the actors that was very informative of things I had missed while watching it the first time. I also have also discussed the show with friends that had seen it on their own.
These are my remaining feelings on this play.
- Mr. Rajiv Joseph. What a nice, talented guy. I really like him. And God bless him for dealing with my gawkish behavior. However...it is arguable that the female character has been nearly void of his more notable pieces of writing for about the past eight years. While watching the play, the very second thing I wrote down, about seven minutes into the show was, This is a very masculine play. I hoped that I would be crossing that out later, that maybe the second act would prove something deeper and conquer my initial reaction. But after rigorous notes on through the second act, I ended up writing down the exact same phrase again at the end of the play. I was enlightened at the post show Q & A with the actors when Patrick Page, playing the domineering role of Apis, noted that the lack of a female energy in the play represented its own necessity, that the men denying healing, nurturing, love and even sexuality lead to their own demise. That seems accurate, and I really appreciate that information in my processing of the story. But I was not able to come to that realization as an audience member on my own and I don't think I'm alone in that. Mr. Joseph is said to be working on a new play to debut at a theatre in Texas that will then be transplanted to the Atlantic Theatre Company in New York later this fall. To that I say, all I want for Christmas is a female principle on that stage. On the other hand, he has certainly provided an abundance of roles for actors of color, so I'm very grateful for that.**
- The production value of the show is astounding and one of the Taper's very best. The sound design by Daniel Kluger is gorgeous, full of beautiful compositions and foreboding tones indicative of an old, like old, old thriller film. The scenic design by Tim Mackabee lends itself to this menacing point in history and aura of death. If you've heard anything about this show, it's probably that there's a set change so impressive that it almost always warrants applause or sometimes even a standing ovation. So major props to the designers for surprising and delighting us with this one. Something interesting happens when this highbrow, sleek audio/visual production style is combined with a text that has been described as "vaudevillian zaniness." The design does not lend itself to the script, but in a good way. It almost adds to the humor. Which leads me to my final point.
- Style/theme. After the many discussions, reading of reviews and solo processing, I know I am not alone in saying that we are really close to reaching something here. Apart from the fantastic design, we really get some first rate acting, from each of the three boy principles as well as the supporting adults. Many patrons I spoke with mentioned that based on the setting and context, the show was much funnier than they had expected it to be. But, we're not entirely sure how to feel exactly. My biggest thematic takeaway from the show was the pushing of the notion that someone else or an outside factor is responsible for one's problems. This can be interpreted many different ways, but I think sometimes I do blame some of my more broader challenges on a system, or the elite. So yes, this play does make me want to change my outlook on those things, because my outlook is bigger than the system and we are the masters of our own destiny, blah, blah, blah. However, I'm not sure if that was RJ's pinnacle goal with this one. Multiple patrons noted that they found the ending abrupt, and potentially disconnected from the historical chain of events it instigated. The ending aside, there was a general sense of frustration with processing the significance of this storytelling from a number of trusted theatre practitioners I spoke with.
LEKO: Just because you're going to die doesn't mean you shouldn't live. As long and well as you can.
I suppose my last question would be, after watching this production would RJ still make me blush. Answer: yes. His genius and precision are alive in this piece, and I hope that as it is a world premiere, it will continue to develop into exactly what he wants it to be. He is a master of his craft, so I know he can. I would encourage you to catch a performance of Archduke at the Mark Taper Forum, running through June 4th. See what it stirs up inside and how this great playwright continues to raise timeless challenges across all histories.
**(Despite point #1, Guards at the Taj is still my favorite, although I never had the opportunity to see Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo performed live.)