This past theatre season La Jolla Playhouse earned no less than ten Craig Noel Awards for Theatre Excellence by the San Diego Theatre Critics Circle, in several categories, not the least of which was Come From Away (6). Blueprints To Freedom earned (2), Indecent (1) and Hershey Felder’s Solo Performance Hershey Felder as Irving Berlin round it out to an even ten. You can understand the anticipation patrons felt as the time approached as the last show of the season, Guards At The Taj, by Pulitzer Prize nominee Rajiv Joseph (Bengal Tiger at the Bagdad Zoo) was about to open. Whether the anticipation was time well spent, remains in the mind of the beholder.
Myth has it that because the Taj Mahal was such a thing of beauty and not to be replicated, ‘Shah Jehan deemed that no one else should ever copy the masterpiece so he had the master craftsmen’s hands cut off.’ Could be, or not. No one is telling, so the myth continues.
It is on this premise that Joseph’s one act 75-minute play directed by Jamie Castañeda, (making his directorial debut) has us outside the Taj, listening to, and watching two Imperial Court Guards (backs to the Taj) guarding it. The construction was 16 years in the making and took twenty thousand craftsmen to complete the job. Both guards were youngsters when construction began. The time is 1648.
The guards were prohibited from talking to one another and were not allowed to turn around and look at the building which was to be unveiled at ‘first light’. The set, designed by Takeshi Kata only shows us etchings of the outline of the Taj lit (Thomas Ontiveros) with what looked to be LED lighting that was sketched on silver metal walls that faced the front of the house. Even the audiences (seated around on three sides) never saw the actual building.
Humayun, (Manu Narayan ) and Babur (Babak Tafti) were the unfortunate two who evidentially drew the short straws to guard the construction since this duty at The Taj falls at the bottom of preferred guard duty or ‘Dawn Watch’; guarding the Emperor’s Harem sits at the top and both men, particularly Babur dreams of being assigned there after this gig.
Babur is the dreamer who sees nothing wrong with breaking a few rules now and then but Humayun, whose father is ‘the highest of high command in the All-On-High Imperial Guard’ cautions him to be careful so as to not draw attention to their talking to one another. “Stop, you have to be careful”.
They are friends yet they are complete opposites, but each manages to exert some influence over the other. They manage a little light banter but at some point, after Babur goes too far with his ramblings Humayun accuses him of almost having committed sedition.
Their conversation ranges from Babur’s tardiness to recognizing and identifying some of the birds flying overhead to Babur’s dreaming, his inventions and his longings, to Humayun’s chastising his fellow guard for breaking the rules. The attitudes and discipline of each differentiate the two and at some point in the play it appears they are almost on the same page but Humayun is uncomfortable breaking the rules.
Suddenly the discussion takes a turn to the macabre when Humayun mentions a rumor he heard about what will happen when the Taj is finally finished, but refuses to tell. After Babur insists, the god-awful tale reveals the hand severing myth. “The Emperor has ordered the hands of every mason, laborer, and artisan who crafted the Tajmahal…be chopped off. ‘Wait, wait. wait. He’s going to chop off 20,000 hands? Humayun, “40,000”.
After all was said and done, and I’ll leave that for you to see with your own eyes, both experienced sensations, maybe disbelief, not anticipated. In a series of grueling moping/cleaning up scenes, neither could believe what had just happened. When they finally came to their senses (that’s questionable), it’s Humayun’s ‘so what’, ‘we just did our job’ that rattled my senses.
Realizing their actions, the dreamer Babur bemoans the fact that it meant there would never be anything as beautiful built ever again. And if nothing so beautiful is ever built again, it meant that beauty itself was dying. He repeats this theme over and over again almost as a mantra.
Later back at their post and looking fit in their newly pressed uniforms (Sue Makkoo), things seem to calm down. There is talk of a reward for doing their job well, even guarding the Emperor and his Harem. Soon after, however, things take another disastrous turn for the worse for Babur when he goes off the reservation and shares with his long time friend his thoughts of killing the Emperor and escaping.
Without giving much more away, the audience is left to contemplate which or who has the greater conscience and how rewards for that or not, are handed out. It’s not too different from current day politics, but whose paying attention.
Straight man Narayan’s character is played beautifully and credibly, as is Tafti’s with his fun filled imagination character. In the world of theatre, both actors carried out their respective roles beautifully and convincingly. At least we know that to be a fact, but what of the message?
The human sacrifice, the dignity, the sanity and the honor of ordinary civilians under a dictatorship or sovereign rule that allows this type of grisly, chilling and gruesome task to be carried out is surely a sad commentary on the human race, myth or not. Fast forward to the Holocaust.
Try as I may I am still grappling with what I saw. Rehashing the play in my mind and rereading it over again still has me shaking by head. We were witness to a horrific injustice, a massacre, a whim sanctioned by an all powerful leader, true or not. And finally, billed as a dark comedy, yours truly saw the irony, but failed to feel the humor.
See you at the theatre.
Dates: Through Feb. 28th
Organization: La Jolla Playhouse
Production Type: Dark Comedy
Where: 2910 La Jolla Village Drive
Ticket Prices: Starting about
Venue: Potiker Theatre