By ALAN SMASON, Theatre Critic, WYES-TV (“Steppin’ Out”)
In attempting to write a review of the Atlantic Theater’s recent virtual production of Guards at the Taj by Rajiv Joseph, it became immediately apparent that much of the exposition of the work would be divulged in its retelling.
Therefore, a spoiler alert must be issued. Much of the premise behind this very dark comedy will be revealed because there is no sidestepping the indelicacy of its subject matter.
Directed by Amy Morton and starring Omar Metwally as Humayun and Arian Moayed as Babur, this two hander is probably not steeped in actual history, but promulgates what might today be considered urban legend.
True enough, Joseph has researched the period and carefully chosen the names of the guards as representative of the initial founders of the Mughal Empire. Babur, which means tiger, established the Muslim kingdom that stretched across present-day northern India, Bangladesh and Afghanistan. Both he and his royal heir Humayun, which means blessed, could trace their parentage back to the great Genghis Khan.
Joseph’s two characters are seen as the complementary yin and yang to one another. Babur, the more imaginative of the two, is not unlike the Stan Laurel to Humayun’s Oliver Hardy. Babur and Humayun are the lowliest of the guards surrounding and protecting the Taj Mahal complex, which, after 16 years of secret construction, is about to be revealed at morning’s first light.
From the very first line of the play, Joseph begins to reference the myth of a horrific decree issued by Shah Jahan that the hands of all the workers who labored on the edifice and within its walls were to be shorn off so that no other building could ever be seen as beautiful.
Babur is late to his post and somewhat disheveled when he bursts onto the scene. He is holding his massive Mughal sword in his right hand much to the horror of his straight-laced partner.
“Wrong hand!” is Humayun’s first rejoinder.
Babur realizes his mistake and switches to the proper left hand and then begins speaking.
At the outset, it becomes apparent Humayun is an enforcer of the rules and adheres to them without question. He gently reminds Babur that guards are not allowed to converse. Babur is not deterred. He continues to express himself, badgering his long friend until Humayun is compelled to join in the intercourse with him.
While the pair may occupy the lowest rung of the imperial guard, Humayun’s father is at its very apex as he is the revered and feared captain of the guard. Babur reminds his partner of that fact, but Humayun indicates his father would favor any and all others above him, suggesting a dysfunction that mirrors modern culture.
Reared under his father’s stern rigidity, Humayun has adhered to a simple philosophy. Follow the rules. He cites punishment for the three various forms of sedition as easily as one might cite the names of family members. For mild sedition, such as making a joke about the emperor, one receives 40 lashes and a head shaving. For more serious sedition there is blinding to be followed by punishment for extreme sedition: being sewn into the hide of a water buffalo for seven days, which would, in fact, be a fatal sentence.
Then there’s the punishment for treason, which Humayun informs is trampling to death by elephant. It doesn’t register at all with Babur.
He longs for a change. Babur expresses a desire to be on better guard duty, perhaps one day to be guards in the emperor’s harem, a reward for those who are tip-top and worthy.
“We are not tip-top,” Humayun explains. “We’ll be gray and toothless before we see the harem.”
Undeterred, Babur imagines the possibilities. Humayun has his feet planted firmly in reality, but Babur looks to the skies for his inspiration. He notes the twinkling stars in the firmament and considers them as faraway fires ablaze in the night sky.
“I think God wants us to learn more and more things,” he confides in Humayun. He imagines vehicles that could transport them above the mundane and what might easily be considered airplanes in today’s parlance.
Behind them in the darkness stands the world’s most beautiful object, about to be revealed by dawn’s first light. Babur implores they take in the view as the birds awaken. But Humayun is undeterred.
“We are not turning around,” he barks.
“Oh, come on, man,” Babur entreats.
Humayun insists the two are unworthy and “grunts of the imperial guard.”
“If there is a post that nobody wants,” he explains, “…then we are assigned that post.”
Just before the actual dawn, a troubling fact dawns upon the pair. As there is no one lower than them, it will be their duty to take on the burdensome task of fulfilling the stern decree from Shah Jahan that the hands of the 20,000 laborers must be cleaved so that no other beauty shall ever again exist in the world.
The sheer volume of strength and endurance to to take on such a chore, much less to tend to the wounded, clean up the bloody mess and dispose of 40,000 sliced hands does not even register with them.
Perhaps in a way of avoiding that horrifying thought, Babur drifts back in time dwelling on a carefully erected nest made of sandalwood and other materials in a tree the two constructed in their early days as members of the imperial guard. There they enjoyed the voices of the songbirds in the night and early morning.
Despite his fear that someone – their elders – will watch them and report them, Humayun is compelled to turn and face the edifice of the structure the world has never before seen.
“There’s no one watching. Not us, Humayun,” Babur implores. “Trust me. There are no eyes in thjs land that would waste themselves on us. They are not watching us. They are watching this!”
The two are bathed in the reflective rays of Agra’s sun as they bounce off the massive white structure while the native birds song rises in volume. It is a moment of transcendence for the two of them as the first scene ends.
The second scene is a grisly tale as the two recount how Babur “chopped” and Humayun “cauterized” the bloody stumps of the 20,000 unfortunates including the chief architect, masons, laborers and slaves, whose hands were deemed expendable by the shah.
According to the script, the two spend much time slithering around in pools of blood with baskets of hands arranged behind them. The second scene involves much cleanup, when not dealing with the slippery floor that is literally covered in blood. The virtual broadcast eliminates much of these gory details.
“What we just did was terrible,” Babur exclaims.
“It was our job,” Humayun shouts back.
Clearly affected by what would be termed today as post traumatic shock syndrome, Babur repeats over and over “I killed Beauty. I killed Beauty. I killed Beauty.”
Humayun does what he can to find a path towards normalcy in a world that does not make sense, but he is powerless to console Babur. Babur asks him to prove that Beauty still exists and Humayun professes that birds on wing are Beauty as the scene ends.
By the time the third scene opens, it is Humayun who is late. Babur is still clearly shaken by the earlier events, but his partner cannot contain himself.
The pair are to be rewarded for their actions. They are to be placed on harem duty!
“See. This is how it goes,” Humayun explains. “People notice. Elders notice.We did our job last night and we cleaned up so well – they were really impressed with the cleanup job – and now we get to accompany the emperor himself to the harem and guard him….in the harem!”
Babur is not as impressed. He wants to revel in their selection to this coveted position, but the onerous tasks they endured beforehand (pun intended) could not possibly entitle them to assume harem duty, he considers.
Humayun begs him to rethink his position.
“I had a rough night,” answers back Babur.
The practical Humayun pleads for Babur to accept their new assignment. With the approval of his father, Humayun proclaims it is a proper outcome to doing their job. “We have a good life, Babur, and I like it,” he says. “I like this world.”
Babur cannot believe what he is hearing and he begins to spin out of control. “You like the world? This world?’ You’re saying you like this world? Where we have to behand 20,000 men in one night? Where we have to kill off Beauty like a wounded animal? Where anything that we might ever feel or think or say might cause us to be executed simply because the emperor is shit-house crazy!”
As Babur begins to rant and consider ways to fight back, his sedition against the emperor is elevated to treason and Humayun is torn between his sacred oaths to the emperor and his steadfast attachment to his friend, each of whom refers affectionately to each other as “Pi.”
Babur, driven out of his mind by the previous night’s actions, unravels as the third scene ends with Humayun directing his friend be arrested for a mild offense that will only keep him in prison for three nights. In this way he hopes to uphold his oaths to the emperor, but also to protect Babur.
Scene four takes place in a prison cell and brings about a final resolution of the predicament between the two. The punishment to be doled out might easily be speculated and probably needs not be listed. Yet, when it is meted out, it is shocking.
Much of the short final scene five is set in the past as Humayun recalls their early days in the jungle with the hastily constructed nest in the trees among the birds. Babur is there taking in the sounds and the two experience the profound beauty of the birds taking off en masse and on wing.
Metwally and Moayed both played these roles previously at Atlantic Theater and so the virtual performances, while lacking costumes and sets are still very rich in substance and nuance. The original music and sound design by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen accompany the action well.
Morton’s direction in keeping the performances measured and scaled back works well in a virtual setting and the few times when the background changes are employed are significantly felt by the audience. As noted previously, this black comedy would normally entail obligatory scenes of horrific bloodletting, which sanitizes the play in a way, but makes it more palatable for audiences unable to experience a live stage experience.
Joseph’s play has scenes that are not unlike the disturbing scenes found in Martin McDonagh’s The Lieutenant of Inishmore or even Taylor Mac’s Gary: A Sequel to ‘Titus Andronicus,’ which played on Broadway in 2019.
Ironically, with the ongoing pandemic and regulations in place demanding scaled-down productions and safety measures, a two-hander like Guards at the Taj might prove mountable for several smaller companies. Atlantic brought back this piece as a way of reminding its constituency of its importance as a smaller theatre company, while also giving its staff an opportunity to fundraise at the same time.
Unlike the lowly guards they portray of Humayun and Babur, respectively, both Metwally and Moayed are tip-top actors and it was a pleasure to see them return to these characters with an obvious glee and purpose in their performances. For all of their work, they truly deserve a rousing…hand.