Where: Steppenwolf Upstairs Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St.
When: through July 22
By ANNE SPISELMAN
Rajiv Joseph’s “Guards at the Taj” weaves together a buddy story and myths about one of the eight wonders of the world to create an 80-minute character study and meditation on the costs of beauty and brutal choices faced by ordinary men in a world with absolute rulers who claim divine authority. Steppenwolf Theatre’s Chicago premiere of the original Atlantic Theater Company production of the 2016 Obie Award winner for best new American play reunites director Amy Morton, a Steppenwolf ensemble member, with actors Omar Metwally and Arian Moayed and the design team for a stunning production of a profoundly disturbing work.
The time is 1648. The place: Agra, India. Humayun (Metwally) and Babur (Moayed), childhood friends who served in the army together and are named after emperors, are lowly imperial guards assigned to watch at the protective wall of the Taj, which has been under construction for 16 years and is slated to be unveiled to the public at dawn. Commissioned by Mughal emperor, Shah Jahan, to house the tomb of his favorite wife, Mumtaz Mahal, and designed by architect Usad Ahmad Lahauri, it’s being called the most beautiful building in the world.
The first scene sets up the contrasting personalities of the friends. Humayun, who we see on duty even before the show starts, is the upright, uptight son of the head of the imperial guards and is intent on following the rules to the letter and fearful of the dire consequences—including death—if he doesn’t. Babur, who rushes in late and positions his sword on the wrong shoulder, is spirited, inquisitive, talkative, and given to flights of imagination like “inventing” a machine to fly to the stars. As the guards are not allowed to speak, Humayun keeps telling him to be quiet but can’t help being drawn into the conversation, which ranges from the rich materials in the building and where they came from to rumors about the emperor’s draconian measures to ensure nothing as beautiful will ever be constructed again. They both hope to be promoted to guard the imperial harem with its promise of female delights. Though forbidden to turn around and look at the Taj they’re guarding, as dawn breaks, Babur does and Humayun follows suit.
In the second scene, the front wall of Tim Mackabee’s deliberately ugly scenic design gives way to reveal not a glorious mausoleum but a dungeon of unspeakable horrors. Humayun and Babur have just completed the gruesome draconian task—cutting off and cauterizing the hands of the 20,000 artisans and architect who built the Taj—and the room is awash in blood, as are the two men. Humayun keeps repeating that they were just doing their job and tries to comfort Babur when he becomes unhinged, convinced that he “killed beauty.”
Their reward, revealed in the third scene, is to be elevated to guarding the emperor when he visits the harem. Humayun is elated by the promotion and having done his job well, but Babur is troubled by nightmares. Things go from bad to worse when he reveals a scheme to escape to the woods where they once built a sandalwood platform to sleep on and shared an idyllic moment, and this results in a most terrible betrayal and punishment.
Although David Weiner’s lighting design, Bobby Frederick Tilley II’s costumes, and Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen’s sound design, as well as the set, are all terrific, were it not for the performances, “Guards at the Taj” would be a lot less engrossing than it is. While some of the dialogue is darkly funny, there are a several dead spots, and the contemporary lingo works against the characters as much as for them. But Metawally and especially Moayed, who was an irrepressible impish smile, have the comfortable familiarity of actors who have been working together a long time—they collaborated with the playwright on these roles, which were created for them—and the way they can shift emotions in an instant is amazing.
Still, what “Guards at the Taj” says about the cruelty men are capable of—even to their brothers—should give us all pause. It resonates today even more than when the play had its world premiere in 2015.