When you see Guards at The Taj, by Rajiv Joseph – now playing at Atlantic Theater Company – , you will want to make a bee-line for the Internet and look up the Taj Mahal so here’s a link. You’re welcome. While the story at the center of this play appears to by apocryphal – it lingers like the aftertaste of a dine wine. You will never behold this wonder in the same way again.
The year is 1648 and the Taj Mahal (literally the Crown of Mahal, the third and favored wife of the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan) is ready to be revealed. For 16 years is has been constructed in complete secrecy. Walls were erected to hide the work, in effect creating a city within a city. 20,000 workers were selected to create what would become one of the Seven Wonders Of The World. Humayun (Omar Metwally ) and Babur (Arian Moayed) are two of the guards who have been placed at the wall protecting the Taj. The two men have been friends since childhood, they are each other’s bhai, and on this day they share the lowest rank of Guard while fantasizing about being Guards for the Royal Harem.
Humayan is the more serious of the two who toes the line and expects no more than to serve the Shah, for that is the highest honor a person could have. Babur, on the other hand, believes that Allah wants us to know more, do more, think more. Even standing guard he cannot resist the urge to babble about inventions, memories, possibilities. It is Babur who convinces Humayan to turn and actually look at the Taj – an act of sedition punishable by anything from prison to being trampled by an elephant. The beauty that these two men see is transcendent.
The apocryphal story goes like this: when the Taj was completed the architect Ustad Ahmad Lahauri approached the Shah (mistake number 1) and asked for a favor (mistake number 2) which was to allow the 20,000 workers to come into the holy space and see what they had created (mistake number 3). The Shah took some time to understand what was being asked because a) no one had ever asked a favor of him E-V-E-R and b) no one had thought of workers as having any rights about anything period. So instead of granting this wish, the Shah had a royal hissy fit and ordered that the hands of all the workers be cut off – and just for good measure he included the architect in that number. His justification was that nothing as beautiful as the Taj should ever be created again.
Back to Humayan and Babur – being the lowest on the Guard Totem Pole, they are handed the job of behanding the workers. Shit. Shit. Shit.
Thanks to a very smart set we are dropped into the lives of these two guards once the deed is done. You don’t have time to question the logistics of the story because Rajiv Joseph’s script and Amy Morton’s fine direction give you no time to dawdle. You are pulled into Humayan and Babur’s relationship without a chance to back away from the car.
As the two men try unwrap their heads around what they have done, we see them stripped down to their essence. Together they have wiped out all further chance for beauty on the planet, and the play takes on the properties of an allegory. Ultimately they end up on opposite sides of the playing field as the more fortunate of India’s population observes their actions.
A 17th Century tale that lives with us still. Surprise….
Guards at the Taj By Rajiv Joseph; directed by Amy Morton
Sets by Timothy R. Mackabee; costumes by Bobby Frederick Tilley II; lighting by David Weiner; music and sound by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen; special effects by Jeremy Chernick; fight director, J. David Brimmer; production stage manager, Cambra Overend; production manager, Michael Wade; associate artistic director, Annie MacRae; general manager, Jamie Tyrol. Presented by Atlantic Theater Company, Neil Pepe, artistic director; Jeffory Lawson, managing director. At the Atlantic Theater Company, Linda Gross Theater, 336 West 20th Street, Chelsea; 866-811-4111, atlantictheater.org. EXTENDED through July 12. Running time: 1 hour 30 minutes.
WITH: Omar Metwally (Humayun) and Arian Moayed (Babur).