Guards at the Taj: Theater review by Adam Feldman
Beauty doesn’t come easily in Rajiv Joseph’s wildly unsettling Guards at the Taj. Things begin comfortably: The uptight Humayun (Omar Metwally) and the dreamier Babur (Arian Moayed), close friends since childhood, are standing guard in Agra, outside the Taj Mahal; it’s 1648, and the great marble mausoleum is about to be revealed to the world after 16 years of top-secret construction. “They say it will be the most beautiful thing in the world,” says Babur. The two men, lodged at the bottom of Shah Jahan’s imperial-military hierarchy, are officially forbidden to look at the Taj. (Their posts face away from it.) But some rules are meant to be broken—while others, it soon becomes clear, will break anyone who comes near them.
By its second scene, Guards at the Taj has veered savagely from its funny, gently puzzled, Waiting for Godot–ish beginnings into grotesque brutality, inspired by a legend of the Taj Mahal’s creation: Imagine Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead as written by Martin McDonagh, then add a whole lot more blood. Director Amy Morton ably navigates the jarring shifts of tone, as do the two exceptional actors, who meet and exceed the exhausting demands of their roles. Although the bittersweet final sequence doesn’t quite come off, by then Joseph’s play has done its gruesome work. It has the scary-comic impact of a demon mask, and you won’t soon forget it.—Adam Feldman
Atlantic Theater Company (Off Broadway). By Rajiv Joseph. Directed by Amy Morton. With Omar Metwally, Arian Moayed. Running time: 1hr 25mins.
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