i got the chance to experience guards at the taj (written by rajiv joseph) at the geffen playhouse for a saturday evening performance…and it was definitely an experience that left an unforgettable impression.
the title of the play simplifies such a charging journey. for 90 minutes the audience goes on a two-person voyage and that voyage actually starts before a word is said. it starts when you enter…while you still carry the mind- and heart-chatter from the day. it’s happening as you find a way to settle into your seat and as you stand up for the later-comers that need to squeeze past you who were also having the same parking issues as you.
on stage a guard waits.
this guard, humayun (raffi barsoumian) sets the tone. he’s there. firm. planted. sure. but there’s something in his eyes that wants to embrace (and explore) the curiosity that is deep-set within the hearts of all human beings. the energy shifts with the late and zippy entrance of the second guard, babur (ramiz monsef) who — unlike his counterpart — isn’t afraid to ask life’s questions and has more than likely lived a full life of tenderheartedness and the greatest expectations. (there is an indication that perhaps humayun lived with wreckless abandon as babur did when they were younger, but it’s possible that he only lived that way when he was with abur. we don’t know how these two meet. only that they are more than colleagues. they are brothers and friends.) so it’s not surprising when the guileless babur suggests that they do what they have been forbidden to do — to turn around and plainly look at the taj mahal.
history lesson: the taj mahal — “crown of palaces” — is a white marble mausoleum located on the southern bank of the yamuna river in the indian city of agra. It was commissioned in 1632 by the mughal emperor shah jahan to house the tomb of his favorite wife of three, mumtaz mahal. the taj mahal complex is believed to have been completed in its entirety in 1653 at a cost estimated at the time to be around 32 million indian rupees, which in 2015 would be valued at around 52.8 billion indian rupees ($827 million us). the construction project employed around 20,000 artisans under the guidance of a board of architects led by ustad ahmad lahauri.
humayun and babur, though different, are alike in that they are both unfussed and undecorated (dare i saw lowly) with humorous imaginations who have been given one task — to guard the taj mahal. the simplicity of their assignment is disturbed when they are issued a distressing and gruesome task, a task they are forced to complete.
it’s rare that a piece as profound as joseph’s envelops complex angles and presents them with such a digestible simplicity. it’s easy to invoke thought about something that’s above a common view, but it takes skill to do otherwise. skill that joseph possesses and on which he clearly has a handle. you don’t have to be a “fan of something” or “like a certain type of art” to lose yourself in the story or to be able to enjoy ‘guards…’ (i actually hate using the word “enjoy” here because you love it, but you leave not wanting to talk about it and wanting to find the nearest bar, have a drink, and process.) no. you just show up and get infected. what i love most about ‘guards at the taj’ is that it meets you right where you are and carefully guides you through a hallway of the plain and before you know it you start to think, “wait. how did this get so complicated?” you’re pushed into a room of all that emotion and the door is swiftly locked behind you — almost as if you had been tricked — and all you have to light your path is the torch of hope. may seem unfair but you’re taking the same journey as the characters and the characters in the play weren’t given a heads up or a choice…or were they? you ask what is true loyalty? as it touches on friendship, beauty (and how it can be killed), dreams, and price. at its heartbeat are sounds of imagination, loyalty, betrayal, childlikeness, acceptance, reality, and conscience. it makes the chatter of the day cloak itself in silence. it labels the trial not finding a perking spot for 20 minutes as trivial. ‘guard…’ invokes thought and — if taken sincerely — promotes change.
and even through all that, there were still plenty of moments when humor was present. even in the midst of literal blood being on their hands…and face.
the technical aspects of this show aren’t to be dismissed. director giovanna sardelli has done a superb job peeling back unseen layers with two very powerful actors. raffi and ramiz so distinctly embody their characters that it’s hard not to love them both and to be on their side. tom buderwitz‘s scenic design is both surprising and naturally appropriate. coupled with ned mochel‘s “violence designer” — a very necessary element — this show is one of the best I’ve seen in a while. rajiv joseph is truly a talent, and it almost feels patronizing to label him as such. words like “genius” and “trailblazer” come to mind immediately. do yourself a favor and get on board. see. this. show.
and if you’re wondering what my drink of choice was post show? jack ‘n’ coke. i had to settle for a mission beer because apparently kids in college love whiskey and the bar was all out.
‘guards at the taj’ (written by rajiv joseph and directed by giovanna sardelli) is currently in previews at the geffen playhouse and will run through november 15 in the theater. to get your tickets, click here.