When you’re out and about in the world and you pause to admire the great cathedrals, pyramids, castles and other manmade structures, have you ever wondered about the people who built them? Was it just a job, or were they aware of the lasting beauty they were helping to create?
If you’re looking for enlightenment on these issues, you won’t find much in Rajiv Joseph’s Guards at the Taj, which is currently receiving its Bay Area premiere at Mill Valley’s Marin Theatre Company (MTC). It’s a brief, intermission-less, two-character play that seems less concerned with historical fact or the human dimension in building spectacular projects like the Taj Mahal than in keeping the audience amused with schticky humor, some working class (yes, guards qualify) quasi-philosophical observations about the nature of beauty and an ending that features shocking and inexplicable carnage.
It’s 1648 in Agra, India, capital of the powerful Mughal Empire. To honor the memory of his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, who died during childbirth, Mirza Shahabuddin Baig Muhammad Khan Shah Jahan (aka “Shah Jahan”) ordered that her body be interred in a magnificent mausoleum built on the banks of the Yamuna River. No expense was to be spared in making this the most beautiful edifice of its kind in the world—a marvel of Mughal architecture that drew its inspiration from ancient Persia and the Arab countries.
Joseph’s play opens on the day before the construction was deemed complete. On either side of the grand arched entrance to the Taj’s formal gardens (set design at MTC by Annie Smart), a pair of guards stand at attention with wicked-looking curved scimitars resting on their shoulders. Their job is to keep the public away while the cleanup proceeds, a task that is apparently very easy since nobody ever shows up.
Former army buddies, they are about the same age and both have names derived from previous Mughal emperors, but their personalities are completely different. Having been raised in a strict patriarchal household, Humayun (Jason Kapoor), believes in following orders to the letter; his companion Babur (Rushi Kota) is free-spirited and playful, with a mischievous streak. That distinction allows Humayun to be the straight man to Babur’s light-hearted discourse—but it also is a major factor in the tragedy that engulfs them at the end of the play.
While Humayun struggles to stand at attention without speaking, Babur, bored and restless in the absence of activity, finally draws him out with his insistent chatter. Soon, they are horsing around and discussing a variety of subjects: The bird calls that Humayun treasures, how wonderful it would be to guard the ladies in the shah’s harem and whether the Taj is worth all of the cost and effort. That leads to a discussion of beauty. To satisfy his curiosity and against his companion’s advice, Babur defies the rules and peeks inside the gate. What he sees has a profound effect: He has seen beauty and it has entered his soul.
This revelation sets in motion the gruesome events that conclude the play. Shah Jahan issues an edict that the finished Taj will be open for one day of public viewing, after which everyone connected with its construction—all 20,000 of them—are to have their hands chopped off so that nothing like it can ever again be built . . . and guess who is to do the chopping? Babur and Humayun comply with the order and a blood bath ensues—literally—but Babur expresses his frustration with what he considers an attack on his newly aroused appreciation of beauty by saying that he would kill the shah if he had the chance. That treasonous utterance, probably not seriously intentioned, seals his fate.
Without the arm-chopping—which lacks any historical support whatsoever—Guards at the Taj would be a mildly entertaining if innocuous fictional excursion into a Mughal culture that combined great cruelty with great art. MTC’s production, led by artistic director Jasson Minadakis, is sound throughout and the young cast arouses our sympathy. The disappointment derives from the playwright’s decision to sensationalize his story with an unnecessary shock instead of providing the cultural depth and psychological insight that it sorely needed.
NOW PLAYING: Guards at the Taj runs through May 21 at Marin Theatre Company, 397 Miller Ave., Mill Valley; 415/388-5208; marintheatre.org.