Rajiv Joseph’s alluringly original 2015 play Guards at the Taj is being given a stellar production at Central Square Theater, courtesy of Underground Railway Theater and director Gabriel Vega Weissman.
It seems that Joseph, a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his 2010 Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, has drawn some inspiration from two great (but seemingly disparate) dramatists: Samuel Beckett and Martin McDonagh. You can think of Guards at the Taj, then, as a kind of bloody, dark Godot.
Humayun (Jacob Athyal) and Babur (Harsh J. Gagoomal) are childhood friends who serve as imperial guards for Emperor Shah Jahan, guarding his mighty Taj Mahal for the better part of their young lives. But for all the years they’ve been guarding it, they’ve never actually laid eyes on the building—no one has. For 16 years the elaborate tomb has been under construction, built by 20,000 men, and it’s been concealed from view. At the start of the play, both men stand guard in the final moments before dawn. When the sun rises, Taj Mahal will be revealed to the world for the first time. But being that Humayun and Babur are imperial guards, they won’t be permitted to turn around and catch a peak.
There is easy camaraderie and effortless banter between the two friends. Humayun, whose father is high up in command, takes his job incredibly seriously. Babur, on the other hand, vibrates with a childlike curiosity. He’s a big dreamer, too—always talking about his dreams or ideas for inventions—with a bit of a mischievous streak.
But for all his stoicism, Humayun isn’t above humoring Babur from time to time and even enjoys a little dawn-watch gossip. The rumor, he says, concerns Taj Mahal architect Ustad Isa, who upon the building’s completion asked the Emperor himself for a personal favor: that the 20,000 men could get a tour to admire their handiwork 16 years in the making. Outraged, after taking some time to fully absorb this insolent request, the Emperor issued a decree that nothing as beautiful as Taj Mahal will ever be built again.
It’s going to be up to you to see the play for yourself to find out exactly how Jahan plans to enforce this decree. You’re also going to have to see for yourself why the play’s irresistibly grim second scene finds Humayun and Babur in a dungeon, slipping and sliding on a blood-slicked floor. I promise you, it’s worth it.
Guards at the Taj refuses to be any one type of play, which is part of the reason that the experience is so rewarding. It is a bold, risky work that crackles with both ferocity and fragility, making it one of the most satisfying Boston productions this year.
It doesn’t hurt matters that it’s also beautifully acted. Athyal and Gagoomal have remarkable chemistry and are giving performances of tremendous range and depth. Athyal in particular, with his muscular intensity and radiant likability, is giving one of the year’s most enigmatic performances.
Guards at the Taj is also a rare example (as far as Boston is concerned) of designers at the top of their game working together to deliver a sleek, sharp, and effective finished product. (Professional theaters need not be congratulated for professional quality designs, yet so frequently has the ball been dropped around town that it’s important to mention when that’s not the case). Grace Laubacher’s set, Leslie Held’s costumes, and Reza Behjat’s lighting are totally exceptional. Most potent, though, is Benjamin Emerson’s richly detailed sound design. And Gabriel Vega Weissman’s production is sublime.
Guards at the Taj is chiefly a play about beauty: the beauty of friendship, the beauty of human connection, and who deserves that beauty. But it also courses with something dark and sinister, giving it a seductive edge capable of piercing the skin and the soul.
GUARDS AT THE TAJ. THROUGH 4.1 AT CENTRAL SQUARE THEATER, 450 MASSACHUSETTS AVE., CAMBRIDGE. CENTRALSQUARETHEATER.ORG