In Rajiv Joseph’s new two-character play, which a hyperbolic Hollywood agent might describe as Abbott and Costello Meets Game of Thrones, we learn that the emperor who had commissioned the Taj Mahal as a tomb for his queen, ordered that all 20,000 skilled artisans who had a hand in building it have their hands chopped off. He did this so that nothing as beautiful could ever be built again.
This ghoulish tidbit is untrue. Its fabrication disturbs me, much more so than if, say, John Adams was said to order the same fate for the builders of the White House , because at least I would know this to be fable, not history. How many audience members at the Atlantic Theater are as well-versed in the history of India?
“Guards at the Taj” showcases two fine actors, Arian Moayed (Tony-nominated for his role in Joseph’s Broadway play, Bengal Tiger at the Bagdad Zoo) and Omar Metwally (Tony-nominated for the short-lived Sixteen Wounded.)
They portray imperial guards standing in front of a wall in 1648 on the night that the Taj Mahal will be unveiled to the public. As the lowliest of the guards, Babur and Humayun are forbidden from looking at the magnificent tomb– they must stand with sword in hand, facing the opposite direction – and forbidden as well from talking. But talk they do, mostly because Babur (Moayed) cannot help himself.
“It’s crazy! Sixteen years in the making! Since we were kids,” says Babur, who still sounds like a kid — indeed like a 21st century teenager.
Humayun tries to shush Babur, getting him to act more imperial, but can’t help but be swept into Babur’s enthusiasm. Their back-and-forth approaches an anachronistic vaudeville routine as filtered through Beckett – almost an homage to Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot.
But in the second scene, the wall opens up and we see the two of them standing, distressed, in a cave-like room a foot deep in bloody water. They were the ones ordered to do all the amputations.
I flashed on Martin McDonagh’s A Behanding in Spokane, in which we actually see the detached hands. McDonagh’s plays use violence as a conduit for humor. But there is nothing comic about Joseph’s violence; it has traumatized the guards – and it has ambushed the audience.
“Guards at the Taj” goes on for three more scenes, brutal and dark, but with time out now and then for bursts of humor, pathos, and dreams. The playwright touches on a philosophical conundrum — why is beauty so often paired with brutality? But that’s the question I have about the play as well.
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Guards at the Taj
Atlantic Theater’s Linda Gross Theater
By Rajiv Joseph; directed by Amy Morton; sets by Timothy R. Mackabee; costumes by Bobby Frederick Tilley II; lighting by David Weiner; music and sound by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen; special effects by Jeremy Chernick; fight director, J. David Brimmer
Cast: Omar Metwally (Humayun) and Arian Moayed (Babur).
Running time: 90 minutes with no intermission.
Guards at the Taj is scheduled to run through July 12