Omar Metwally and Arian Moayed | Michael Brosilow
By Tonika Todorova
There certainly is captivating beauty in Rajiv Joseph’s GUARDS AT THE TAJ currently to behold at Steppenwolf’s upstairs theatre. But this production isn’t as much about upholding the “true meaning of beauty and the cost of transcendence in a world that confuses the value of both,” as the press release suggests, as it is about friendship — the connection, laughter and heartbreak of a long endured friendship.
We are introduced to two Godot-esque characters: Humayun and Babur, who have known each other since boyhood. Humayun’s archetype is a rational rule follower, a man whose father (a higher-up in the army) has washed away almost all of his son’s appreciation of beauty. The childlike Babur, on the other hand, is still awe inspired by anything that makes him feel alive and happy. These friends share a history of recognizing splendor, but somewhere along the lines, its importance to each of them diverges. As Persian poet Rumi says, “Everything that is made beautiful and fair and lovely is made for the eye of one who sees.” When we meet the pair, they are appointed with guarding the walls behind which sits the newly crowned jewel of Agra, the commissioned work by despot Shah Jahan for his late wife, filled with imported marble and precious stones, the Taj Mahal. What could possibly go wrong?
These characters are the only two people we ever see on stage. It’s a bit hard to believe they are the only ones guarding the Taj, but even harder to believe that they are given the task to sever the hands of the 20,000 artisans that build the astounding monument by a decree of the King in one night. And as Babur points out- that’s 40,000 hands. But for dramatic purposes, we will assume that’s a probable execution. Their reward- to be personal guards to the King in the Harem. Except they never get there. Babur’s conscience forces him to speak blasphemy and his friend Humayun feels obligated to punish him for it. And therein lies what feels like the biggest inconsistency of the play. The punishment, although providing a completion of the cycle, feels forced and inaccurate for the infraction. And it’s unclear why Humayun, himself, has to execute the order. But all that’s for the birds, in the end. There is such joy in watching Omar Metwally (Humayun) and Arian Moayed (Babur) play together, such honest humor and heartfelt compassion, that it absolutely explains why Rajiv Joseph would want to write a play about these two. The chemistry between them is charming and pure fun and you can tell these actors like one another quite a bit.
There are great design elements supporting this production as well. Tim Mackabee’s scenic design transports us inside a bloody dungeon with scattered amputated hands and David Weiner’s gorgeous lighting design brings us the grandeur of the Taj even in the absence of the actual building. There are some bothersome elements in the costuming such as the two guards not having the exact same uniform (a king who orders the hands of his artisans chopped off so they never build anything more beautiful than the Taj, surely wants the guards who watch over it to be perfectly matched?) and when they return at their posts post hand chopping, their head gear is missing (Humayun corrects Babur’s saber position, but both show up sans turbans?) However, their garbs are still period perfect and are a good representation of 1600s Hindustan.
GUARDS AT THE TAJ leaves a feeling of discontent. The language and ideas brought up are admirable. The acting is superb. The lighting manages to fly a flock of pink and purple birds in a most exquisite ecstasy and instantaneously shroud us in the stark moonlight, uncovering the same emptiness one solitary sentinel feels without his brethren.