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A CurtainUp Review
Guards at the Taj

"What we just did was terrible." — Babur
"It was our job."— Humayun
Guards at the Taj
L-R: Omar Metwally and Arian Moayed (Photo: Doug Hamilton)
Playwright Rajiv Joseph is no doubt aware that we don't really need to be told that the world is a place full of innocent lives subjected to unimaginable horrors by fanaticism, ruthless power plays and moral confusion. But he clearly believes that we can't be reminded often enough that humankind is prone to succumb to the banality evil again and again — and that such reminders can be effectively dramatized with a generous touch of humor.

I've admired Joseph's works for their imagination and originality. However, I found it hard to be amused or especially moved by this new play. That's despite its having much in common with his Pulitzer prize runner-up, The Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. (See links to Joseph plays at the end of this review).

In The Bengal Tiger. . . Joseph had two Marines guarding the tiger of the title. When one of the men maddens the animal with his insensitivity, his partner manages to save his life, but not his hand. The Guards at the Taj takes us back to 17th Century India. The guard duties now pertain to the almost finished Taj Mahal, and the mutilation this time is ratcheted up into a stomach turning mass mutilation.

What's more, the two Guards are given the grisly job of carrying out their ruler's order. Once again, guilt trips and alienation follow this hard to watch bloodbath. It's therefore understandable why Joseph wanted to begin his depressingly topical dramatization of a folktale often associated with the Taj Mahal with a light note.

The play's Guards are presented as long-ago prototypes of ordinary citizens who have been brainwashed and forced to "just do their job" — even if that job involves torture and killing. To lighten the dullness of their routine, and to ease us into what's to come, they banter back and forth.

Bobby Frederick Tilley II's costumes for Humayun (Omar Metwally) and Babur (Arian Moayed) don't evoke images of any uniforms worn by people in low-level jobs we're familiar with. But the men's conversation is as contemporary as anything you might overhear on a subway ride. What their initial exchanges do evoke is a classic set-up of two very different personalities, with one more or less straight man to the other.

Actually, the monument guarding job dictates complete silence, but if that rule were followed we wouldn't have a play, nor could the playwright establish the difference between the two men that inevitably changes their lives and relationship forever: Babur, is a sensitive dreamer for whom what he's forced to do is doubly horrifying, since it makes him see himself as a killer of all beauty. . . Humayun, while drawn to his friend's imaginative ideas, believes in the greatness of the powerful ruler and following orders.

Under Amy Morton's atmosphere building direction the tension builds and the two actors are guided to do full justice to these demanding roles. Arian Moyaed, who was a standout in The Bengal Tiger. . is again exemplary as the non-conforming dreamer. Both tease maximum audience response from the Beckettian comic business that leads to the very dark scenes that follow. This combination of ominous and humorous has its moments. However, I felt what was said and what it paved the way for was rather too obvious, and not up to my expectations from previously seen Joseph plays.

Timothy R. Mackabee's striking set allows the initial display of oppressive boredom and subjugation to a ruthless potentate to change to a pitch-black scene. The shift in tone and scenery is further intensified by David Weiner's moody lighting, the melancholy incidental music of Bob Milburn & Michael Bodeen and special effects by Jeremy Chernick.

The bloody reality of the mutilations, most especially the one involving a single pair of hands, is unbearably harrowing. If this were a telecast, someone would have prefaced some of these scenes with a caveat for viewers sensitive about watching scenes of extreme violence. Without an opportunity to switcn off the button or fast forward, one is consequently forced to witness the hellish goings on.

I prefer gritty, provocative plays to more fluffy entertainment. However, given that the questions raised about ethics, friendship and the preservation of beauty are so obvious, this imaginatively conceived but gruesome realism places an unnecessarily excessive strain on the audience's equilibrium.

Following are links to other plays by Rajiv Joseph we've liked and reviewed at Curtainup:
The North Pool
Animals Out of Paper
Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo
Gruesome Playground Injuries
Guards at the Taj by Rajiv Joseph
Directed by Amy Morton
Cast: Omar Metwally (Humayan)and Arian Moayed (Babur)
Scenic design by Timothy R. Mackabee
Costume design by Bobby Frederick Tilley II
Lighting design by David Weiner
Original music and sound design by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen
Special effects design by Jeremy Chernick
Fight direction by J. David Brimmer
Stage Manager, Camera Overend
Running Time: Approx 90 minutes, no intermission
Atlantic Theater Company at The Linda Gross Theater
From 5/20/15; opening 6/11/15; closing 6/28/15.
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer at June 5th press preview
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