BWW Review: GUARDS AT THE TAJ at Steppenwolf

BWW Review: GUARDS AT THE TAJ at Steppenwolf

As the old adage goes "Beauty is in the eye of the beholder." Rajiv Joseph's GUARDS AT THE TAJ asks precisely how far we might go to defend that which is beautiful, even if great human suffering and violence are involved. The play centers on Humayun (Omar Metwally) and Babur (Arian Moayed), two low-ranking guards at the Taj Mahal in 1648. The two are so low-ranking, in fact, that their job requires them to face away from the mausoleum. Joseph's narrative provides his interpretation of the legend that guards like Humayun and Babur were asked to do the unthinkable in order to make sure that the Taj Mahal remained the most beautiful place on earth: cut off the hands of the 20,000 laborers and the architect who constructed the monument.

Steppenwolf's production reunites cast members Metwally and Moayed along with director Amy Morton. Together, these three artists collaborated with Joseph for the play's world premiere production at Atlantic Theatre in New York City in 2015. Accordingly, the present production is a unique and deeply emotional experience: it is fascinating to see the performers that were so closely involved in the development of this piece revisit it after a few years away. As one might expect, Metwally and Moayed have a magnificently natural rapport as they deliver Joseph's intentionally anachronistic dialogue.

Despite the play's dark subject matter, GUARDS AT THE TAJ also plays on the power of humor as a defense mechanism. Both actors have a pitch-perfect sense of comedic timing and many moments have an Abbott and Costello-feel to them. Metwally and Moayed are asked throughout the play to shift nearly on a dime from moments of humor to moments of deep, dark emotion. They do this deftly and naturally. This shifting rhythm in Joseph's play can feel jarring at times, but these performances kept me constantly engaged as the story unfolded.

The production elements also speak to the play's shark contrast between stunning beauty and stark violence. Tim Mackabee's scenic design begins with an ivory wall meant to suggest the Taj Mahal itself, which then unfolds to a jaw-dropping and gruesome scene that I will not disclose here. Just know that it is entirely fitting for the world of the play and also entirely discomfiting. Bobby Frederick Tilley II's costume designs convey the pomp and circumstance of the guards' roles, while David Weiner's lighting design highlights moments of both joy and cruelty in the production.

Though GUARDS AT THE TAJ may have just two characters, Joseph's script, Morton's direction, and Metwally and Moayed's performances all combine to make this a production with real gravitas. Certainly, the play's exploration of the sacrifices we make for art and the question of who has the right to become an authority on art are also compelling. Though the play is set in 1648, the themes Joseph also raises about power dynamics and how those with very little power react to their circumstances feel timely indeed.

GUARDS AT THE TAJ plays through July 22 in the Upstairs Theatre at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 North Halsted. Tickets are $20-$94. Visit Steppenwolf.org.

Photo by Michael Brosilow

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