By HARRY DUKE
It’s 1648 and the splendiferous Taj Mahal awaits its opening. Humayun and Babur, the two lowliest members of Emperor Shah Jahan’s royal guards, are assigned the lowliest duty at the worst post. They are stationed at the gate and forbidden to look in. Humayan dreams of being reassigned to the Emperor’s harem. Babur dreams of bigger things. Babur can’t help but to steal a gaze at the magnificent edifice, and soon their dreams turn to nightmares.
So goes the tale of playwright Rajiv Joseph’s Guards at the Taj, running now at the Marin Theatre Company. A curious mixture of comedy and horrific drama, director Jasson Minadakis helms what is easily the most polarizing production currently playing in the Bay area.
While set in ancient India, it’s told in the vernacular of modern American youth. What starts out with light, amusing interplay between Humayun (Jason Kapoor) and Babur (Rushi Kota) as they deal with the monotony and tedium of ‘work,’ soon turns very dark and blood red as Humayun’s desire for advancement leads to them both taking on an unenviable duty.
Sha Jahan has decreed that nothing more beautiful than the Taj Mahal shall ever be built, and to ensure that has ordered that the 20,000 craftsmen involved shall have their hands removed. Seeing this as an opportunity to prove themselves to their superiors, Humayun and Babur undertake the task. In the end, neither ends up where they expected.
MTC has issued plenty of notice to its patrons that this production features simulated violence and even discounts its front row seats since they are in a “splash” (though more like “splatter”) zone. Ponchos are also offered to guests seated in the area. In fact, there is little violence actually portrayed on-stage but the results of the unseen violence can be unsettling to some. I suspect the closer you are to the stage, the more unsettling it is.
Lost in all the talk of the gallons of blood occupying the Boyer Theatre are the performances of Kapoor and Kota. They have terrific chemistry and are immediately believable as two old friends. One is practical, responsible, somewhat level-headed. The other is goofy, impetuous, more artistic in his thinking. That friendship is, to say the least, tested. Their happy-go-lucky banter and the genuine affection portrayed for each other in the first half makes the second half resolution that much more difficult to stomach.
Joseph packs a lot into this 85-minute play with no intermission. Issues of class and power, duty and responsibility are at the forefront, but ultimately it comes down to what an individual is willing to do to advance in the world or what one does when faced with a difficult choice.
Whether these issues are overshadowed by the staging is a fair question, and one that requires significant post-show thought.
As the audience exited, I sat in the theatre trying to come up with some way to describe the mixture of styles and tones within this one show. What starts out as a sort of Bob Hope/Bing Crosby “Road” movie (The Road to Agra?) soon dissolves into a Herschell Gordon Lewis splatter film.
Both genres have their fans. I’m not sure they cross over.
Guards at the Taj continues at the Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Avenue in Mill Valley, California now through May 21. Evening shows are Tuesday through Sunday at 7:30 p.m. with matinees on Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m.