TheatreWorks Silicon Valley ended its 49th season with a Tony Award for Regional Theatre — the fourth such honor bestowed to a Bay Area company — and the Northern California premiere of “Archduke” by Rajiv Joseph.
For Joseph, author of the taut and tantalizing power-swapping drama “The North Pool,” the production is a bit of a homecoming. That play premiered at TheatreWorks in 2011, and they produced his “The Lake Effect” in 2015. “Archduke” was developed at their New Works Festival in 2016 before premiering at the Mark Taper Forum in Los Angeles the following year.
Joseph takes an unexpectedly playful tone here, as he wraps a cult-of-personality exploration around a political history parable about domestic terrorism set against the start of the first World War. Despite its subject matter, the play reaches for comedy throughout. The result is a your-mileage-may-vary experience, though the June 8 opening night audience laughed appreciatively for much of the performance.
“Archduke” starts in an abandoned archive, collapsing into itself and strewn with the debris of long conflict. It’s the first of two magnificent designs by Tim Mackabee, and its hollow yet hallowed tone is metaphorically perfect for a beleaguered Europe on the cusp of dramatic change.
One at a time, Stephen Stocking (Gavrilo), Adam Shonkwiler (Nedeljko) and Jeremy Kahn (Trifko) enter for a clandestine appointment. Upon discovering each other, they warily exchange information and spar over social and political ideologies while grappling with newfound medical realities. The sequence, as directed by Giovanna Sardelli, has a “Who’s on first?” rhythm with a “Waiting for Godot” patina.
They are quickly whisked to the lair of Dragutin “Apis” Dimitrijevic, a Serbian nationalist who believes regime change via the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand and, importantly, his wife Sophie is the only solution for his country’s desperate state.
Scott Coopwood gives an expansive and athletic performance as Apis, the delusional yet charismatic power behind the plot. He prowls the stage, leaping on tables, bellowing and bullying, pontificating and proselytizing. He psychically seduces his three stooges to regicide with a sinewy, serpentine charm shot through with dictatorial confidence and a manipulative grace Machiavelli would approve.
He’s abetted by Luisa Sermola as his erstwhile servant Sladjana, whose comically weary ”Yes, master!” deadpans and power-grabbing over the timing of dessert belie the more sinister role she will later play.
The play ends with the three buffoons on a train ride to history, revealing the second Mackabee scenic masterpiece. Non-spoiler alert: They carry out their mission. However, why they do it and what their journey means remains a head-scratcher.
Upon accepting the Tony in New York, TheatreWorks’ founding artistic director Robert Kelley, board president Judy Heyboer and executive director Phil Santora thanked those who bestowed the honor.
“This award is for generations of collobarators who have grown TheatreWorks for 50 years,” said Kelley, in his final year in the post, who acknowledged the many writers and composers responsible for creating 70 world premieres and developing hundreds of new works.
TheatreWorks joins American Conservatory Theater, Berkeley Repertory Theatre and The San Francisco Mime Troupe on the list of Bay Area winners of regional Tonys.
Presented by TheatreWorks Silicon Valley
Where: Center for the Performing Arts, 500 Castro St., Mountain View
When: 7:30 p.m. Tuesdays, 2 and 7:30 p.m. Wednesdays, 8 p.m. Thursdays-Fridays, 2 and 8 p.m. Saturdays, 2 and 7 p.m. Sundays; closes June 30
Tickets: $40 to $100
Contact: (650) 463-1960, www.theatreworks.org