The brutality at the core of Rajiv Joseph’s “Guards at the Taj” leaves nothing to the imagination. Joseph’s intentional lack of subtlety does reveal wonder, however, forcing us to consider what we are capable of doing to one another. Director Jonathan Williams’ bravura new Capital Stage production of the 2016 Obie Award winner for Best New American Play doesn’t pull any punches either. Working with superb actors Rajesh Bose and Mohammad Shehata as the two guards of the title, Williams crafts the alternately humorous and horrific story as a bleak obvious modern allegory.
Set in 1648 Agra, India, the night before the unveiling of the Taj Mahal, imperial guards Humayun (Bose) and Babur (Mohammad Shehata) stand watch in front of a wall that hides the massive temple. While the guards are not supposed to speak, the irreverent Babur eventually cajoles his longtime friend, the much more circumspect Humayun, into an appreciation of the singing night birds, which Humayun loves. The guards would not have spoken English of course nor would they have used the modern colloquialisms the two engage in, but it is all part of playwright Joseph’s rough charm. The unthinkable events that eventually transpire are legendary as well, but there is no proof they actually occurred. If that language sounds eerily familiar, so might the description of a vain, fanciful and unseen tyrant, though any resemblance to current events is purely coincidental.
Humayun and Babur positions as guards outside of magnificent edifice places them at the bottom of the imperial hierarchy. Put in the position of having little choice but to carry out a brutal and capricious edict from the Shah, they do. Yet while the powerful may be immune to consequences, the powerless are not. Humayun and Babur are rewarded but left traumatically affected.
Bose and Shehata – the only two characters we come in contact with – are bright and engaging throughout. Stephen C. Jones’ regal set design (with help from and associate Lee Anne Meeks) and the lighting by designer Timothy McNamara effectively set the place and changing time frames.
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I’ve only seen one other play by Joseph, a fine New York production of his “Gruesome Playground Injuries” and that work had similar moody sense of regret and loss.
Note: This review was changed at 3:28 p.m. Friday, March 24, to reflect that Lee Anne Meeks is a scenic design associate of Stephen C. Jones.
Guards at the Taj
What: Capital Stage production of Rajiv Joseph’s modern allegory with Rajesh Bose and Mohammad Shehata. Jonathan Williams directs.
When: 7 p.m. Wednesdays-Thursdays, 8 p.m. Fridays-Saturdays, 2 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays through April 16
Where: Capital Stage, 2215 J St., Sacramento
Cost: $28-$38. Student rush tickets are half priced with valid student ID within 1 hour of performance
Information: 916-995-5464; capstage.org
Running time: 95 minutes, no intermission