In The Dairy Center’s “Guards at the Taj,” a sharp comedy meets grisly carnage
By Lisa Kennedy (Read the original.)
Stars shimmer behind the gate where a sentinel stands facing the audience at the start of “Guards at the Taj,” at the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company through Feb 18. Another guard soon joins him in the wee hours. Babur (Jihad Milhem) is late. We get a sense this is not unusual. He arrives a bit disheveled and breathless. And soon, against all protocol, he’s twittering on like a bird. Like the birds he asks his fellow sentry and childhood friend Humayun (Sam Gilstrap) to name.
“Imperial Guards of the Great Walled City of Agra…do not speak,” chastises Humayun. A likable naif, Babur recognizes the contradiction. “You keep talking about not talking,” he says to an exasperated Humayun, the disappointing son of the highest-ranked official in the guard.
He’s got a point, of course. But, if Babur and Humayun were silent there wouldn’t be a play. Or at least not Rajiv Joseph’s nimbly talky — and blood-letting — tale of two guards awaiting the unveiling of the Taj Mahal.
Their banter and philosophizing outside the architectural marvel (centuries later named a world heritage site and “wonder of the world”) is at times absurd enough to draw comparisons to Vladimir and Estragon or Abbott and Costello. Only the broad — and bleak — comedy meets carnage in Joseph’s play to intentionally uncomfortable, and often resonant, effect.
In the 17th century, Indian emperor Shah Jahan had the massive mausoleum built for his most beloved of wives, Mumtaz Mahal. Or so the legend goes. “Guards at the Taj,” however, is not that love story. The playwright skirted the romantic yarn to tell a darker one about duty and beauty, whim and power. The sort of absolute power that, well, you know the saying.
Babur turns out to be gobsmacked fan of the Taj’s architect, Ustad Isa. Recounting the palace scuttlebutt, he tells Humayun that the designer had the generous wish (the audacity!) to ask the emperor a favor: Let the 20,000 craftsmen see their handiwork. In response to this unheard of request, Jahan orders the behanding of all the artisans. His reasons go beyond Isa’s impertinence.
Who will be charged with the vile task? Friends Humayun and Babur, of course. How often over the centuries have rank-in-file souls been asked to execute a soulless, evil assignment?
Early in this two-hander (poor choice of words?) Barbur asks Humayun, aware of his own lose tongue, “You won’t tell on me?” To which Humayun, a stickler about degrees of “sedition,” replies. “Well, I won’t lie.” Babur’s enduring curiosity and Humayun’s need to prove himself worthy turn to authentic conflict over the course of the play.
This story of this mass dismemberment is pure fiction. That Joseph’s play has been called a fable doesn’t mean that it’s entirely freed from the moment in which it arrived, though. Some who saw the play when it premiered in 2015 were dismayed by the refashioning of the famously romantic story of the monuments origins into one about an Islamic leader inflicting butchery.
“Guards at the Taj” has sharp fun with the dark humor, the fleet to-and-fro of Joseph’s language. Directed by Stephen Weitz, the Boulder Ensemble’s production is handsome — if a bit chilly for all the misery it will inflict. Ron Mueller’s set beguiles when wonder is the point and appropriately dismays when a butcher’s cell is called for. Jacob Welch’s lighting design and Daniel Horney’s sound design also enhance the awe and agony.
This production poses resonant questions about the relationship of powerful patrons and artists, of imperial (and imperious) leaders and regular folk. It asks, where does beauty reside in this complex mix? In the midst of these satisfactions, something significant remains slightly amiss. Actors Milhem and Gilstrap don’t get the morrow, that deep sorrow of these most ordinary of friends faced with the unthinkable. A pathos as vivid as the comedy is never quite achieved.
3 stars (out of 4)