The year is 1648 and two imperial guards, Hamayun and Babar, are charged with night watch at the entrance to the gates of the Taj Mahal, which at daylight will be unveiled to the public by emperor Shah Jahan after nearly two decades of construction. The boyhood friends ponder shirking their duty and post so they can lay eyes on the dazzling new building (the emperor vows that nothing so beautiful will be built again). But their momentary bliss of seeing this awesome jem just before daybreak is cut short when they are tasked with carrying out a horrific deed on behalf of the “most benevolent” emperor.
In Guards at the Taj by Rajiv Joseph (Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo) at Atlantic Theater we have a wholly original two-person play that at once is terrifying and inspiring. Joseph practically reinvents the dark night of the soul as these two boyhood friends take part in an unthinkable horror (spoiler alert to come), which leads to Humayun’s choice between duty and friendship. Actors Omar Metwally (Humayun) and Arian Moayed (Babur) superbly handle a play that requires huge emotional range—hilarity, stone-cold brutality, terror and grief.
The strength of Joseph’s play is the balance between the endearing relationship between friends (it borders on a deep brotherly love) and the shocking twists that lead to a series of unthinkable choices. Good fiction relies on characters making hard decisions, and this story has that in spades.
Take, for instance, emperor Shah Jahan’s decree that nothing as beautiful as the Taj Mahal shall ever be built again. Just how does he intend to prevent that? (Spoiler alert!) Turns out, Humayun and Babar are tasked with cutting off the hands of the 20,000 artisans and builders that constructed the Taj over many many years. The audience is thrust right into this den of horror, as Humayun and Babar literally wade through a puddle of thick red blood, attempting to come to terms with the atrocity they’ve just committed. This moment is not for the faint of heart. But if you can endure, it’s a moment of genius stagecraft thanks to set designer Timothy Mackabee and effects designer Jeremy Chernick. (Spoiler alert ended.)
Babar’s character is youthful and talkative, inclined toward flights of fancy. Out loud he dreams about inventions, many of which seem intended to take him far away from the world he knows. He’s torn up that their act has “killed beauty” once and for all. Humayun, however, the son of a military officer, is more focused on his duty to the state, maintaining the honor of his namesakes, and advancing his military career. Their characters soon clash when Babar, stricken by grief over what he’s done, cooks up a plot to “defend beauty.” Humayun is then faced with a terrible choice: his friend or his honor.
So much happens so quickly on that stage, that by the end I felt completely breathless, my heart in my throat. I knew I needed to cry, by I was so overwhelmed by the beauty of the night’s proceedings that I just couldn’t shed a tear. Then the actors emerged for their curtain call, the men took their bows, and I wept—a lot. Guards at the Taj is what theater should be: self-reflective, inspiring and cathartic.
Guards at the Taj is extended through July 12. Run, don’t walk, to see this stunning play. You can thank me later.