Review of Guards at the Taj
By Rajiv Joseph
Directed by Jasson Minadakis
For tickets & schedule:
Marin Theatre Company
Mill Valley, CA
RUN: April 27 – May 21, 2017
RATING: 5 of 5 stars
(May 3, 2017)
If you see one play this year, it should be Guards at the Taj. Its gruesome theatricality parallels the Mughal Empire’s reign of staggering artistry living hand-in-hand with excessive violence. Completed in 1648, the Taj Mahal stood in regal glory, sparking the legend that Shah Jahan ordered such a thing of beauty should never be built again and required the hands chopped off of the 20,000 workers and artisans, ensuring its rival could not be created. It is highly unlikely such an event actually took place, but it is a recurring motif in folklore found around the globe, and likely the local manifestation of that theme, according to resident dramaturg Laura A. Brueckner. The story concept’s massive scale could become unwieldy, and in an early draft the play was filled with characters. Playwright Rajiv Joseph realized the centrality was represented in its least grandiose characters—the guards. The resulting two-hander play Guards at the Taj takes ordinary people and sets them in a world beyond their control, forcing them to make impossible decisions and live with the consequences.
While there are lofty moments debating the philosophy of beauty and play of power structures, at its heart the play is about friendship. Humayun (Jason Kapoor) believes that if he obeys the rules, his life will get better, despite the horror of living in between. Childhood friend Babur (Rushi Kota) is playful and emotion driven, leading him to feel the situation acutely, whether it is cheerily cracking jokes while standing guard, or wading through a blood covered set, traumatized by the experience. Their interactions are acutely humanizing moments; Humayun’s gentle kindness, silently washing his friend’s face is tragically beautiful.
Both actors are magnificent in this piece, from subtle eye twitches becoming comedic gold to numb horror when faced with a set drenched in blood. This is a gory play, with around 100 gallons of stage blood in various forms used in each performance. To practice, director Jasson Minadakis used puzzle pieces dumped onto the studio floor, and the actors practiced working through the dialog while moving them around, putting puzzles together, or flipping pieces over. This is no quaint Victorian fairy tale, it embodies the raw violence of ancient mythology before Disney got hold of it, when villains and heroes alike gushed blood and body parts.
Although the subject matter is extremely violent, most of the play is two men hanging out casually discussing whatever comes to mind, which happens to be quite profound. Joseph creates a conversational atmosphere, whether that is lighthearted ribbing about getting to guard the harem to desperately trying to deal with a dangerous situation by talking about something else to keep the mind occupied and not thinking about what is going on. Sound designer Chris Houston adds texture to the setting, layering recorded Indian bird songs in outdoor scenes to the point where they almost become another character, and ominous echoing and dripping blood when necessary. Annie Smart’s deceptively simplistic set design is effective and filled with concealed traps that become relevant as the story progresses.
This play has an intrinsic shock value, but also the intimacy of two friends trying to survive in a world that doesn’t care about individuals. Through creativity of spirit they manage to keep their humanity in tact until the monarch requires something so heinous that it crumbles around them. As Humayun laments, “what is caring going to get me?”
Please note that this play is not for children; it contains traumatic imagery and brief nudity. The first two rows of the theater are a splash zone, do not wear your favorite outfit if you plan to attend in that area.