Guards at the Taj
At the Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre
By Dan Zeff
Chicago—As the audience enters the Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, they will see a man standing at attention on stage carrying a sword and dressed in the uniform of a 17th century imperial guard in India. As soon as the houselights dim, a second man dressed in a similar uniform takes his place beside him. Eighty minutes later the play ends with the original figure resuming his solitary position on the stage.
A whole lot happens within those intermissionless 80 minutes. The audience listens to light banter, pseudo philosophy about beauty, and whimsical exchanges about fanciful inventions. In the first few minutes the spectator learns that he two men are troopers guarding the Taj Mahal, the wondrous tomb erected by the all powerful shah in memory of his young deceased wife. The year is 1638 and the place is Agra, India. After 16 years of construction, the Taj Mahal finally finished and ready to be unveiled to the public at dawn.
American playwright Rajiv Joseph wrote the play, which made a considerable splash when it premiered off Broadway in 2015. “Taj” even won the 2016 Obie Award for Best New American Play. The Steppenwolf has booked the original two-man cast for the local premiere, and the original director, Steppenwolf ensemble member Amy Morton. So what we are seeing is the same production that took the Obie ago and pleased so many reviewers three years ago.
Joseph apparently was inspired by legends surrounding the construction of the tomb. The guards are responsible for ensuring that no unauthorized individual sneaks a peak at the Taj Mahal before its official unveiling. They hope that succeeding in their responsibilities responsibilities will elevate them to promotion as guards of the imperial harem, an image filling their imaginations with delicious lascivious thoughts of romping among the beauties of the shah’s consorts.
About halfway through the play the story takes a very dark and brutal turn that calls for a spoiler alert. Without giving away too much, the two men are given a fearful commission that affects the 20,000 people associated with the building of the Taj Mahal. The set is converted into a giant butcher’s block and the human destruction sets the two men, formerly lifelong friends, leading to the onstage maiming of one of them.
Although the story is rooted in the 17th century in faraway India, the dialogue is modern, including the frequently employment of 21st century profanity and colloquialisms. That realism wrenches the story away from any salvage as a once-upon-a-type fairy tail. The violence, though mostly offstage, is way too graphic too be dismissed as folk fiction.
So what’s the point of “Guards at the Taj”? There is a discussion of beauty that is too full of holes to pass as a serious aesthetic debate. The two men are agreeable and often funny but they aren’t particularly interesting figures. The play has lots of shock value for those partial to that kind of theater. But even at a short 80 minutes of playing time there were dead spots, especially in the early going, that had me sneaking looks at my watch. If there is any attempt to explore the human condition it eluded me.
The staging does pass muster in its production values. Omar Metwally and Arian Moayed are first rate, Moayed’s Babur the more frisky and imaginative personality and Metwally’s Humayun the stickler for procedure and unswerving compliance to the imperial will. The bloodbath midway through the play is the unchallenged wish of the never-seen shah who may represent the miseries inflicted on a population in the power of a ruler who answers to nobody except perhaps his own diseased mind. But we have seen tyrants of that ilk, from Nero to Stalin. Like them, the shah is nasty but not instructive.
The play ultimately will satisfy spectators who enjoy doses of comic (though not witty) dialogue and then a descent into Grand Guignol gore. The two actors obviously believe in the play and throw themselves into it with unstinting commitment. The physical production is well up to the mark. Scenery designed by Tim Mackabee realistically moves us back and forth between the exterior wall the concealed the Taj Mahal into the blood-soaked abattoir. The costume designs by Bobby Frederick Tilley II lend the show an authentic historical focus. David Weiner’s dramatic lighting and the sound design and original music by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen complete the excellent physical production.
Joseph gets credit for making a viable comedy-drama-horror story out of improbable material. The man can write. Metwally and Moayed can act, and Morton can direct. It comes down to a matter of taste. Some viewers might find the play a risk-taking but intriguing theatrical experience stoked by some fine acting. Other patrons will greet the final blackout with considerable relief. I didn’t like the play but it clearly had its advocates in New York City in 2015.
The show gets a rating of
“Guards at the Taj” runs through July 22 at the Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 North Halsted Street. Most performances are Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday at 7:30 p.m., Wednesday at 2 and 7:30 p.m., and Saturday, and Sunday at 3 and 7:30 p.m. Tickets are $20 to $94. Call 312 335 1650 or visit www.steppenwolf.org. June 2018
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