By Mukul Khurana
Shah Jahan translates roughly into the English “King of the World.” As such, Shah Jahan was an impressive ruler. In the seventeenth century, that meant that wars of conquest and constant expansionism were the order of the day. That also meant that the spoils of war and all that made the fifth Mughal Emperor of India a very wealthy man.
Having access to beautiful things made Shah Jahan want to replicate that beauty and he did that with great abandon when it came to architectural structures—he wanted to leave legacies behind. Ironically, he isn’t mainly remembered for many of those things. He is remembered for the Taj Mahal, the tomb and resting place for his favorite wife—Mumtaz Mahal.
This shrine dedicated to his wife came at a heavy cost and was a long time in the making—twenty thousand laborers and sixteen years to be exact. Guards at the Taj is cleverly set on the day this magnificent creation is to be unveiled. Rajiv Joseph, the Pulitzer Prize finalist for the earlier Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, introduces us to the two main characters—Humayun (Manu Narayan) and Babur (Babak Tafti) as they are guarding the tomb. Even though they are the guards responsible for making sure that no one gets close to the monument, they are not allowed to see it either!
Everyone involved in this production comes with great pedigree making them the perfect choices for such an undertaking. Manu Narayan has among other credits one that makes him a natural for this role—from Broadway, Andrew Lloyd Webber/A.R. Rahman’s musical Bombay Dreams. Likewise, Babak Tafti’s acting spans the whole range from theatre to television (Blue Bloods, Nurse Jackie, and Orange is the New Black).
Besides the above-mentioned credit as a playwright, Rajiv Joseph also writes for theatre, television, and films. The Showtime series Nurse Jackie and the film Draft Day are feathers in his cap. And the list goes on. This is the first production directed by the Associate Artistic Director, Jaime Castaneda. He has developed new plays with the O’Neill, Rattlestick Theater, Space on Ryder Farm, Summer Play Festival, The Kennedy Center, and the Atlantic Theater Company—not to mention numerous other credits around the country.
Set in Agra, India in 1648, Guards at the Taj begins with the meanderings and small talk that would occupy average guards—be they in 1648 or 2016. We are talking about laborers leading mundane lives and rulers aspiring to greatness. A Marxist reading would lay bare very obvious class divisions, but this play (like Shah Jahan and the Taj Mahal) aspires to much more.
Over the course of the conversation, it becomes clear that the price of beauty in terms of the Taj Mahal is going to become horrifically high. It won’t end with the importation of the highest quality of sandstone and marble. It won’t end with the costliest of inlaid jewels. It won’t end with the detailed inscription of verses from the Quran.
The guards are going to be party to a horrible deed. Does beauty or progress have too high a price? What is the difference between the bargains ancient rulers made (as in the case of the Taj Mahal and the Pyramids) and our present day structures? How many lives were sacrificed in the construction of the Great Wall of China, the Hoover Dam, or the Panama Canal? How do we justify our actions?
The second scene was uncomfortable for many members of the audience. It goes to the credit of the Scenic Designer, Takeshi Kata, that we believed the setting though it was very minimalist in its approach. Many audience members would have liked a glimpse into the wonders of the Taj Mahal at the La Jolla Playhouse though that would have defeated Shah Jahan’s intention.
The Costume Designer, Sue Makkoo, also went to great lengths to make sure that the clothing be realistic for that time and era while not feeling out of place now. Likewise, the Lighting Designer, Thomas Ontiveros, was very careful in making sure that our attention was directed where it should have been. The sounds we heard, courtesy of Sound Designer Cricket S. Myers, also moved the story forward. At no point did the audience feel distracted for any reason. There was a brief fight scene, choreographed by Fight Director Steve Rankin, which added yet more realism to the proceedings. Gabriel Greene was the Dramaturg who also did his part in making this an excellent production.
Is this a play for “everyman?” Probably not—the themes were hard to handle. On the other hand, if you focused and listened carefully to the philosophical meanderings of the two guards (and yes, it wasn’t mundane chatter after all), you were rewarded by a very satisfying experience. It didn’t take away anything from the horror of what you were witnessing, but you were being confronted by very real questions and concerns.
Guards at the Taj ends February 28. Ticket information here.