If blood and gore are your thing, Rajiv Joseph’s “Guards at the Taj,” the 2016 winner of the Obie (Off-Broadway) Award for best new play, is a play you won’t want to miss. But the current production of this remarkable play at Sacramento’s Capital Stage is also a powerful theatrical experience that merits the attention of even the most squeamish theater-goer.
The story takes place in 1648 in Agra, India, just after the final work has been completed on the great Taj Mahal, the emperor’s shrine to his beloved wife (who died giving birth to their thirteenth child). The one-act play involves only two characters, the guards at the Taj of the play’s title. They are Humayun and Babur, old friends who are on the lower end of the hierarchy in imperial guard duty, with dreams of one-day getting an exalted position as guards at the emperor’s harem. To get there, however, these two hapless guards must do some dirty work, some decidedly dirty work, and that work leads to the blood and gore mentioned above.
The play is remarkable for several reasons. It builds off of the humor in the opening scene, when the characters’ identities and proclivities are made apparent. As they engage in a bit of metaphysical musing and practical postulating, their basic perspectives are revealed. Humayun is the by-the-book worker, who never questions authority and hopes for better things in his future if he keeps his nose to the grindstone and does good work. Babur is the rebel who shows up to work late, scoffs at authority, and dreams of inventing—or creating—or being—something more than might be possible.
The play hits several subjects and hits them hard. On the surface, the theme is of the power of the authoritarian ruler to control the fate of the many who subject themselves to that rule. But on a deeper level, one which gives the play its gravitas, the theme is of the conflict that exists when duty to authority is at odds with personal morality. And underlying it all is the question of how far the bond of a friendship can be stretched in the most trying of circumstances.
“Guards at the Taj” contains a fair amount of humor, but it is not a comedy. It is a drama that explores the human condition at a very basic level, and while it is entertaining, as all good theater must be, it is also impactful, the kind of theater that Capital Stage has built its brand on.
The production is skillfully directed Jonathan Williams, the company’s co-founder. He merits great credit for the staging of a critical scene in the middle of the play. He also gets fine performances from his two actors. Rajesh Bose plays Humayun, and although he at times seemed to be shouting excessively, his silent scenes that open and close the play are terrific. Mohammad Shehata, as Babur, provides the more nuanced performance, showing his character’s rebellious spirit while maintaining the humor in his dialogue with his friend.
The production is also notable for the dynamic scenic design (by Stephen C. Jones) and the seemingly authentic costumes the men wear (by Gail Russell). As always, Ed Lee provides the excellent music that bridges the scenes.
“Guards at the Taj” is important theater. This production is the kind of experience Sacramento needs to nurture and cherish.