Monday, May 8, 2017

"Guards at the Taj"

Guards at the Taj
Rajiv Joseph

Jason Kapoor & Rushi Kota
Innocence.  Naiveté.  Duty.  Abomination.  Denial.  Guilt.  Duty. 

Two of the lowest ranked grunts of the Emperor’s Imperial Guard prepare for their first night’s watch at the gate leading to the “most beautiful thing ever built,” about to be revealed to the world with the coming dawn’s flaming rays.  Watching and listening to them is like witnessing a classic comedy routine the likes of Laurel and Hardy, Abbott and Costello, or Lewis and Martin.  One is overly serious and intent on following every rule; the late-to-arrive other (to the first’s horror) forgets his turban (run off, run back on), his sword (repeat), and the correct stance of the royal guard (shift, shift again).  One is intent on being serious and silent (although he does crack a smile once in a while).  The other cannot help but joke, wonder at the stars or what it must be like to be in the Royal Harem Guard, imagine what space travel might be like, and even dare to suggest they turn around and glance at the Taj Mahal as the sun rises in this morning of 1648 in Agra, India -- an act that could bring them forty lashes, blindness, seven days bound inside a water buffalo skin, or being trampled by an elephant. 

Jason Kapoor & Rushi Kota
Two young men -- immediately likeable, almost adorable, and certainly stunningly handsome in their blue and gold, robed uniforms – immediately suck us in as an audience as Rajiv Joseph opens his Guards at the Taj, now receiving its Bay Area premiere at Marin Theatre Company.  The twinkling stars in a vast sky, the pleasant symphony of night birds and crickets, and the brother-like bond these two share in their back-and-forth banter let us relax our own guard even to believe that the pre-publicity buzz of this play being gruesome and bloody must have been all wrong.  These are just two almost-kids who dream of bettering their lot in life by doing what they are ordered to do in jobs they are lucky to have.

Jason Kapoor & Rushi Kota
But then comes the order that no one in their positions could ever imagine getting – a command to do the unimaginable.  That the Supreme Emperor has decided to ensure that the hands -- 40,000 hands of 20,000 workers and one imperial architect-- that built this most beautiful building will never build another structure any more beautiful is now going to be their duty -- their sworn duty as part of their loyalty to the Shah – to carry out.  The horrific acts these two near-boys obediently do leave them and us in a state of stunned shock.  But we are also left in a state where we cannot help but watch in awe and some empathy as we and they try to understand what they have done and why.  As we watch with stomachs now queasy and heads a bit swimming trying we decide whether to stay or to ease out of the auditorium, we become enthralled in their playful inventions of things like flavorful rain, houses that become gardens, and portable holes they can use to sneak out of any situation.  As they seek escape through curiosity and imagination from their sudden roles as torturers of others, we cannot help but be touched by the humanity they show each other even as we are witnessing their cleanup of acts they have committed beyond anything we would call human or humane.

Rajiv Joseph once again – as he has in play after play like Bengal Tiger at the Bengal Zoo, Gruesome Playground Injuries, and The North Pool – challenges his audience to examine how relationships, ethics, and power dynamics change direction in an instant when the forces of ambition and ascribed duty comingle with the pain and maybe death of others (or the lure of possible sex and riches for self).  Major shifts occur on the stage before us between these two bro’s from birth.  Justifications for acts sound too familiar, echoing the perpetrators of Nazi Death camps, of ISIS converts, and maybe even of Wall Street manipulators.  What leads two normal, good guys to do things they clearly were not put on this earth to perform?  What makes us both abhor and sympathize with them?  And how come we are still laughing with them even after what we witness the horrors they have done?

Many forces combine to make this Marin Theatre Company production a powerful, must-see piece of live theatre.  First and foremost (beyond the script itself), the direction of Jasson Minadakis is so fine-tuned in each of the eight-five minutes of the tight play.  Initial set-up of humor is visually captivating between the two, young men.  Sounds employed through the outstanding composition and design of Chris Houston surround us to add power and meaning to the action (and non-action) on the stage before us.  Silence is used to great effects to give us a chance to ponder and to absorb as we watch the characters do the same.  The director never lets us forget the horror of what has occurred but also reminds us constantly that these are just two, ‘normal’ guys that we have actually grown to like a lot. 

Jason Kapoor and Rushi Kota are nothing short of shockingly outstanding in their roles as Humayun and Babur -- shocking in that they are able from the first to the last minute to remind us that what appear as good people can actually do terrible, unspeakable acts against each other.  Bad people we read about in the paper or online are not necessarily demons with horns.  They may – and perhaps are often  – like these two before us who show many signs of love and caring, who dream fantastically of inventive schemes, who are funny, and who can come to genuine tears of regret for acts they commit.  Each of these actors performs individually in ways that constantly remind us that a son, a friend, and a potential love of someone is behind those slight smirks and big smiles, those eyes full of mischief and of curiosity, and those muscled arms seemingly more ready to hug than to harm.  By their performances and interpretations of their characters, these two actors do not let us forget the fine line between good and evil and the fuzzy grayness that boundary can have.

The bloodbath of colors that at times floods the stage stands in great contrast to the inspiringly beautiful array of nature’s colors so magnificently designed in the lighting scheme of Mike Post.  The arched gate entrance that dominates the scene created by Annie Smart is both welcoming and menacing as her design further evolves with the script’s progression.  Props by Lizabeth Stanley play major roles in their realistic depiction of the acts the two boys have committed.  And as she always seems to do, Fumiko Bielefeldt has designed costumes that tell their own story without a word spoken.

Certainly there will probably be at every performance, as there were in the one I attended, some people who will decide to exit early this Marin Theatre production of Guards at the Taj.  However, the reasons are many to stay and to witness the entirety of Rajiv Joseph’s compelling and complicated, funny and repulsive, historically inaccurate but currently relevant story.

Rating: 5 E

Guards at the Taj continues through May 21, 2017 at at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley CA.  Tickets are available online at or by calling the box office Tuesday – Sunday, 12 -5 p.m.

Photos by Kevin Berne

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