By Patrick Hurley
Average men having to do unimaginable things strikes a violent and elegiac chord in The Geffen Playhouse production of Guards at the Taj, playing now through November 15. The play, written by Rajiv Joseph is a two-handed exploration of truth, beauty, and friendship at its most heightened extreme.
The play takes place outside the gates of the Taj Mahal, in the 17th century just before it was unveiled to the world. Hidden by a large wall, and guarded by two low-level guards, Humayun (Raffi Barsoumian) and Babur (Ramiz Mosef), both of whom are facing in the opposite direction, unable to see, what Shah Jahan deemed to be the most beautiful thing in the world. Humayun and Babur, speak in modern day vernacular, and ponder explorative ideas of the nature of beauty, the universe, and loyalty. Brought up to date by the playwright as a clear means of exploring an idea, rather than getting stuck in a period piece. Humayun takes his post and duties very seriously, conversely, Babur is inquisitive and almost childlike. Humayun dreams of the day when he will get rewarded for his loyal service, and be promoted to something more prestigious and enjoyable, like say a harem guard. Babur is full of juvenile eccentricities and looks at the world with imaginative wonder. And in what is reminiscent of Rosencrantz in Tom Stoppard’s masterwork, is a forward thinker making observations about the world that science has yet to discover. And while there is a solid kinship between these men, Humayun’s frustration for Babur can be seen from the outset. This clash of personalities makes for a humorous opening scene, and sets the tone for the relationship that we are about to watch unfold.
After having declared the Taj Mahal to be the most beautiful thing ever built, the emperor then has it decreed that all the men who took part in building it, must have their hands chopped off, to ensure that nothing more beautiful will ever be built. Thus providing our duo with a task, a task that involves a scene that could be right out of a Tarantino film.
The philosophical ideology at the core of this play brings up questions of society and oppression therein. There is something implicit in these two men, something that is shocking and even unimaginable. But when faced with the idea that one has no choice, the extremes that we can be driven to are truly frightening. While Humayun sees his duty as noble and the only option, Babur wants more. He questions their morality, as well as the morality of their Emperor, which is an act of sedition that carries a harsh punishment. Humayun then finds himself forced to make a decision between his friendship and his duty. The rigid society that these two men live in make the stakes extreme, and the choice, particularly the one that Humayun must make, almost impossible to imagine.
This production is nearly flawless. The beautifully simple scenic design by Tom Buderwitz is wonderfully enhanced by Lap Chi Chu’s elegant lighting. Director Giovanna Sardelli holds all of the elements so together so succinctly, that the play feels like a tightrope walk, where one wrong move and it all collapses. This is also because playwright Rajiv Joseph knows what he’s doing. The script is tight. It’s funny, shocking, eye-opening, and heartfelt. It’s also brief. He keeps it all under 90 minutes. So there’s barely time to catch our breaths.
Both actors are exceptional. Raffi Barsoumian as Humayun perfectly displays the internal struggles of someone caught between his loyalty to his friend and his country. His subtle expressions are constantly evocative. The scene where he washes Babur’s face is one of the most touching moments you’re likely to see on any stage. Likewise, as Babur, Ramiz Monsef is stellar. His wide-eyed optimistic character crosses from hilarious to tender seemingly without effort. Ultimately, watching him having to come to terms with the harsh reality of his world is heartbreaking.
Equal parts thought-provoking and funny, briskly paced, and wonderfully acted this is a Geffen Production that you don’t want to miss.
Guards at the Taj
By Rajiv Joseph
Directed by Giovanna Sardelli
10886 Le Conte Avenue, Los Angeles CA 90024
Saturday- 3PM & 8PM
Sunday- 2PM & 7PM