In his strikingly original drama, “Guards at the Taj,” Rajiv Joseph (“The Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo”) entrusts the romantic legend of the Taj Mahal to two lowly palace guards. What, pray tell, is beauty — and who owns it? It takes a cataclysmic event for that philosophical conundrum to capture the imagination of the two young Imperial Guards standing sentry at the momentous unveiling of the Taj Mahal in 1648. Meanwhile, the playwright’s amusingly anachronistic idiom and two excellent performances from the likable actors in this two-hander keep us entertained — and totally unprepared for some shocking plot turns.
Eavesdropping on their private chatter, we hear how the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan was so inconsolable when his favorite wife died in childbirth in 1631 that he built this white-marble mausoleum as her monument. We learn that it took 16 years for 20,000 workers to construct this “jewel of Muslim art in India” — and observe how the emperor made sure that the world would never see its likes again.
Director Amy Morton (a staunch member of the Steppenwolf faithful) has done a superb job of modulating the pace and tone of the plot revelations. At the top of the show, the duty-bound Humayun (Omar Metwally) and his high-spirited friend, Babur (Arian Moayed), Imperial Guards of the Great Walled City of Agra, are presented as childhood friends with comically dissimilar attitudes about the work ethic. Despite their differences, the bonds of their friendship run deep.
Before their initiation into the dark side of being human, both Humayan and Babur would agree that the essence of beauty is defined by the magnificent white marble palace they have guarded for half their lifetimes, but are not allowed to gaze upon. And they firmly believe that, like all things in the kingdom, beauty itself falls under the dominion of His Most Supreme Benevolence Emperor Shah Jahan.
But as they keep the Dawn Watch in anticipation of the historic unveiling, the irrepressible Babur lets his imagination fly him to the stars that blaze “like fires in the distance.” An artist at heart, he envisions flying machines and worlds beyond the stars. The music of the night supplied by designers Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen is so hypnotic that even the earthbound Humayun allows himself to be carried away. And in the moment that dawn breaks, both friends disobey orders and gaze in wonder at the forbidden sight of pure beauty.
Although we don’t actually look upon this wonder of the ancient world, the unveiling of the Taj Mahal becomes a magical onstage moment as revealed through David Weiner’s gorgeous lighting, which has been designed to capture all the shifting colors of the rosy-fingered dawn. The sheer beauty of it softens us up for the horrors of the next scene, rendered in shades of hellfire in Timothy R. Mackabee’s scenic design, in which Humayun and Babur wrestle with the contradictory demands of duty to one’s lord and loyalty to a friend.
It’s heartbreaking to watch gentle Babur deny his own nature and descend into barbarism to carry out the brutal chores of his military calling. But the honorable Humayun’s conflict, between robotic submission to the rule of law under which he was raised and an act of human disobedience that would make him a traitor, is no less pitiful. If the only choice is between death and dishonor, is either choice really ethical?