Mohammad Shehata, left, and Rajesh Bose star in "Guards at the Taj,"
The year is 1648 and the location is the Taj Mahal, the night before it is unveiled by the Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan, to the public.
The play is “Guards at the Taj,” an award-winning script by Rajiv Joseph directed for Capital Stage by co-founder Jonathan Williams.
There is no indication at the outset as to whether this is a comedy or a drama … and the answer is “yes.” As the play starts, there is fear that it is going to drag because of long silences between the two characters. Then it becomes very funny and after nervous titters, there are deep guffaws, but then it becomes very serious and even shocking.
Rajesh Bose (Humayun) and Mohammad Shehata (Babur) are outstanding actors who make this play come alive. The two play imperial guards stationed at the gate of the Taj Mahal, tasked with the duty of making certain no one sneaks in and sees the edifice before its unveiling the next morning. They are to stand at attention all night and not speak or turn around to look at the building.
Humayun is the rules guy. He stands stoically, as his job description demands, and rebukes Babur, who wants to chat. Babur is the goofball of the two … they are a real Odd Couple. It is Babur who sees the ludicrousness of standing still all night when they are the only two people around.
Eventually, Babur wears down Humayun’s reserve and the two joke and chat together, though until they reach that point one does wonder if this play is going to drag because of the uncomfortable silences while Humayun refuses to talk.
About the time the audience has settled in to enjoy this comedy, suddenly things aren’t so funny anymore and turn terribly black. The two guards have been given an unspeakable job of horrific brutality. To follow orders will change their lives forever. Each man is shaken to his core and in the aftermath one suffers severe PTSD, and the other must make an even worse decision.
This is the story of a bromance that is tested to the extreme. Even in the brutality, there is a sweetness in the relationship between Humayun and Babur. In the testing, the idea of “beauty” is analyzed and we learn how friendship of the men both sustains and ultimately destroys them.
Even in the midst of the horror, Babur brings a note of lightness with his dreams of fantastical inventions and “flying to the stars.” Humayun wants to invent a “transportable hole” to carry around so that one can escape any unpleasant situation, and they discuss the problems with trying to carry a “hole.” Talk of their inventions keep the men’s minds off of their horrific task, at least for a while.
Stephen C. Jones’ scenic design is simple, but handsome, while Timothy McNamara’s lighting and Ed Lee’s sound design add much to the atmosphere.
Perhaps the heroes of this production are the unnamed tech crew who have some amazing jobs between scenes and who get a round of applause each time they exit the stage. Not sure who is responsible for the “props” in Scene 2 but they deserve a round of applause, too (an ironic idea, when you think of it!).
“Guards at the Taj” is not going to appeal to everyone … and if you can’t handle brutality, perhaps you should stay home. But that would be a shame because this is an excellent play that will hold your attention and make an impact. You will be thinking about it long after you have left the theater.