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The distinctive voice, mordant humor and adventurous tonal range that elevated Rajiv Joseph‘s marvelous breakthrough, Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, again invigorate his new work, Guards at the Taj, even if it doesn’t match the earlier play’s clarity. Set in Agra, India in 1648, and spun out of the unsubstantiated myths about the supposed mutilations inflicted by the Mughal emperor on the architect and builders of the Taj Mahal, this is a compact two-character play loaded with ideas and evocative imagery. It begins almost like a comedy sketch but develops into a haunting consideration of loyalty and betrayal between friends, of duty and blind adherence to barbaric command, and of the ownership of beauty.
The marketing materials of the Atlantic Theater Company, which is staging the play’s world premiere, call it “bold and surprising.” That turns out to be an entirely accurate description of this ideal little production — directed with supple modulation by Amy Morton, designed with striking austerity by Timothy R. Mackabee, and graced with magical conjuring powers via David Weiner‘s lighting and the music and sound design of Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen.
While Morton’s work as an actor is familiar to Broadway audiences from her indelible performances in August: Osage County and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, this is the Steppenwolf Theatre Company member’s first time directing in New York. She has coaxed layered performances fueled by surreptitious power and startling shots of pain from her exemplary actors, Omar Metwally and Arian Moayed.
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Speaking and behaving in a consciously anachronistic contemporary American vernacular, they lull us into a false sense of comfort by playing the archetypal buddy dynamic of the humorless prig and the jokester. But those roles alter and take on new shadings throughout, echoing everything from Waiting for Godot to Rosencrantz and Guildernstern are Dead, via Beavis and Butthead. This is a play that moves from pitch-black absurdist comedy to horrific brutality, from philosophical reflection to surreal observation, keeping those shifts fluid and consistent with the overall scheme throughout.
As the audience enters, Humayun (Metwally) is already in position on pre-dawn sentry duty in front of a rough stone wall, silent and unsmiling with his sword at his side. His fellow guard, Babur (Moayed), shuffles along habitually late and proceeds to break Humayun’s concentration with his constant chatter. The approval-seeking son of the strict head imperial guard, by-the-book Humayun takes his role and its sacred oaths very seriously. Babur is more of a dreamer, not above riling his childhood friend with “mildly seditious” thoughts about their jobs, or pointing out the hypocrisy of a religious autocrat who punishes treason over blasphemy.
Joseph writes sly, funny dialogue laced with jolts of lyricism, and the initial exchanges between the two guards are highly captivating, even if some of the play’s verbal detours are more bewitching than enlightening.
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Babur has a talent for fantastical invention, and his anticipation of passenger air travel is vivid and beautiful: “I bet there will be a sort of palanquin that can soar into the stars like some giant bird.” Unlike most dreamers, he sees all possible outcomes for his predictions, mulling on the usefulness of flight to obtain greater knowledge as well as the threat of flying weapons. He even comes up with the practical safety solution of the seatbelt. Humayun, on the other hand, never gets as far as the endgame; his notions — like a transportable hole to create doorways — disintegrate as he tries to explain them.
Much of the early conversation centers on the soon-to-be-unveiled marvel of the Taj Mahal, which has been kept under wraps throughout its 16 years of construction. Commissioned by the sovereign ruler of Hindustan, Shah Jahan, as a mausoleum to honor his tragic consort, this elaborate architectural jewel has been conceived as the final word in beauty. How the emperor intends to ensure that its splendor remains unsurpassed is the subject of anxious speculation from Humayun and Babur. When they turn at daybreak to take in the magnificent sight, the staging remains unchanged. But the expressions of hypnotized awe on the actors’ faces, and the brilliant intensification of Weiner’s lighting allow us to share directly in their sense of wonder.
Little else can be revealed about the plot without compromising the play’s unpredictable paths. The guards are ordered to commit a merciless act on an epic scale, and then privately sift through the consequences of what they have done. For Babur, whose concept of right and wrong comes from within, that process brings agonizing realizations and a radical response. But for practical Humayun, that kind of self-examination and the carrying out of orders don’t mix, so he does his best to ignore his own discomfort and calm his agitated friend.
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That complex dialectic of ethical debate vs. unquestioning submission is an eternal struggle relevant across countless wars and regimes, both past and present. It is thrashed out here on a stage literally awash in the physical evidence of cruelty as the tone morphs from gallows humor through searing poignancy to devastating conflict, carried by exceptional actors at the top of their game. A coda scene that returns to the guards’ youth as soldiers is an exquisite piece of writing. It recalls an image evoked earlier in the play of a sandalwood platform they built high in the trees of the jungle, where they could sleep safely, away from tigers, and from which they share a stunning experience of beauty in nature.
The Atlantic set a new high for the quantity of blood seen onstage several seasons back in Martin McDonagh‘s The Lieutenant of Inishmore. In a play that matches that production’s gore factor, Joseph’s writing at times has similarities to McDonagh’s, with its livewire dialogue, spiky character interplay, wicked humor and blunt cynicism. If Joseph is perhaps less focused on story, his attention to philosophical, existential and spiritual questions makes Guards at the Taj a strange but unexpectedly moving experience.
Cast: Omar Metwally, Arian Moayed
Director: Amy Morton
Playwright: Rajiv Joseph
Set designer: Timothy R. Mackabee
Costume designer: Bobby Frederick Tilley II
Lighting designer: David Weiner
Music & sound designers: Rob Milburn, Michael Bodeen
Fight director: J. David Brimmer
Special effects: Jeremy Chernick
Presented by Atlantic Theater Company
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