Entertainment » Theatre

Guards At the Taj

by Kilian Melloy
Monday Mar 12, 2018
Jacob Athyal and Harsh J. Gagomal in 'Guards At the Taj.'
Jacob Athyal and Harsh J. Gagomal in 'Guards At the Taj.'  

Rajiv Joseph (author of the Pulitzer Prize finalist "Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo") brings grisly new meaning to the theater-speak term "two-hander" with the short, sharp shocker "Guards At the Taj," running now through April 1 at Central Square Theater.

For a good while prior to the play's start, Humayun (Jacob Athyal) is dutifully standing guard. We don't learn until later that he's posted at the magnificent new Taj Mahal -- the year is 1648 -- and that the structure is about to be revealed for the very first time, its unblemished stone ready to meet the morning light. As the play begins, it's still pre-dawn darkness; sound designer Bankajim Emerson helps us visualize this with early morning birdcalls, but these auditory cues aren't for atmospherics alone. Arriving late, the second guard posted to duty at that spot, Babur (Harsh J. Gagomal), asks which birds they're hearing. Babur's lack of both professionalism and concern for their duties raises Humanyun's hackles, and he remonstrates with his feckless partner, reminding him that they are imperial guards in the service to the Shah and any deviation from their responsibilities -- which includes being on time and standing in silence, swords at the ready -- can bring down the wrath of a draconian system of laws and punishments.

But the two aren't some randomly paired team. They're boyhood friends; all Babur has to do is keep jabbering and eventually, Humanyun is chatting away with him. The two discuss various topics, including Babur's burning wish to be assigned to guard duty at the Shah's harem; there is, evidently, no punishment severe enough to dampen his enthusiasms, and Humanyun spends some time reminding him of what horrors are to be found on the menu of discipline.

Whipping? Prison? Unimaginable torments involving water buffalo? It doesn't matter. Babur can't wrap his mind around such suffering despite having the imaginative powers of a Leonardo da Vinci, and he has an epic case of ADHD. (That's not the anachronism it might sound like; Joseph's approach is to avoid trying to make this play sound or feel like it takes place in a distant age or foreign country. These could be two contemporary men, a couple of guys from Boston. That's the point.) Babur also can't stand being required to stand at attention, facing away from the show, as the Taj Mahal is revealed for the first time, especially since the structure is meant to be the pinnacle of all human beauty. As the sun rises, Babur turns to get a good look at this vaunted creation, and, stunned at the exquisite sight, he induces Humanyun to follow suit.

And that's where the play tips from jocular into ghastly. When the guards resume their positions they begin talking about something that happened offstage -- something that spells terrible consequences for others but which also, they realize, is going to affect them directly. The Shah has taken offense at something that would seem -- to us, anyway -- a trivial matter. His rage, and his absolute power over those in his dominion is such that he orders an atrocity to be committed against the 20,000 guiltless laborers who have just spend a decade and a half constructing the Taj Mahal.

Beauty may rise from bloodshed; we're used to this idea. But the notion that bloodshed is a fit reward for the loyally-discharged duty of creating beauty? That rubs the wrong way, as does the idea that the people ordered to execute the Shah's hideous instructions are these same two lowly guards. Is their role in the atrocity a punishment for that stolen look -- a look behind them that carries outsized, overwhelming consequence, like Lot's wife giving a backward glance at the burning cities of the plain, or Orpheus checking to see the Eurydice is still following him up from the underworld? Is this, in other words, a karmic comeuppance to Humanyun and Babur for sampling a majesty that lies outside their caste? Or is it merely the result of an uncaring natural order in which the most demented cruelties are apt not only to go unchallenged and unpunished but to be validated?

This two-person play plays with double-edged blades of meaning and suggestion, not the least of which is a subtle paralleling of the timelessness of immense beauty and the perpetual readiness of power to corrupt, dehumanize, and ravage human beings. Those whom the carnage of physical violence befalls may end up maimed or dead, but the psychic toll on those capable of imagining and then ordering those horrors is arguably worse. In a society where the powerful set their own limits, what's out of bounds?

"Guards at the Taj" contemplates this question and interrogates its audience about our own complicit culpability. In so doing, it goes to some very dark places and asks questions of central importance to our age -- and any age. When we're "just following orders," do the sins committed by our hands accrue to someone else's soul? If those same hands conjure up a king's transcendent vision, we garner only a splinter of the glory for playing our part. So why should we shoulder the blame when that king devises monstrosities?

Balancing the most sublime of our achievements against the most nightmarish of our depravities, one wonders if the cost of bringing anything wondrous into existence isn't an equal share of misery -- and, if so, whether the cost of beauty not simply be too steep.

"Guards At the Taj" continues through April 1 at Central Square Theater. For tickets and more information, please go to https://www.centralsquaretheater.org/shows/guards-at-the-taj/

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Assistant Arts Editor. He also reviews theater for WBUR. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.


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