By Alan Bresloff
The play is about the search for beauty. It takes place in 1648 in Agra, India. The two men in this story are Humayun (a solid performance by Martin Hanna) and his best friend, Babur (deftly handled by Owais Ahmed). These are the two men who portrayed these characters in the original production (also directed by the extraordinary Amy Morton). It is the evening prior to the dawn where after 16 years of being constructed, the Taj Mahal, will be revealed to the world. The Taj Mahal, which was constructed as a memorial tribute to the rulers wife, is referred to by the Shah as the “most beautiful building in the world”.
These two men, Imperial Guards, have the duty of making sure that no outsiders get a glimpse of the building before the walls are open. It is a lower level guard position, but one that opens the door for future positions. Sort of working their way up the ladder. During their time of service they are not to speak, smile or in any way attempt to look at the Taj. Doing so could cost them their lives. They do speak. In particular Babur, an inventor of sorts, or at least, a man with countless ideas. His dream is to be the guard at the Shah’s Harem , thinking this would allow him to meet many women.
During the first 40 minutes of the 80 minute production (no intermission) we get to learn of the lives of these two men and their great friendship and caring for each other. There are many comical moments as well. We learn during their conversations that it has been said their leader feels that in order to make sure that no building can be built that could be more beautiful, the architect and all 20,000 workers who built the Taj, should have their hands chopped off, making this impossible. Near the end of this scene, as the dawn comes near, Babur turns to face the Taj and quickly thereafter, Humayun does likewise.
In the next scene, the two men are in what appears to be a dungeon or cave and are covered in blood. The floor is blood-filled as well and there are baskets of hands as well as hands on the floor. One learns that since they were the first to break their positions and stare at the Taj, they were given a new job, that of cutting off the hands of some 20,000 men! There is a great deal more to this portion of the story, which I will not go into, but to say that they feel responsible for destroying “beauty” as Babur calls it. Not so much about the lives of the men they cut (and fixed- Humayan colorized the stubs and saved their lives), but the fact without these men, no other beautiful buildings will come to be erected.
The scene between these two men is powerful and shows the importance of friendship and deep affection for someone other than one’s self. The two men help each other and clean up the mess that was made as part of their service and punishment. They go back to their jobs where they are rewarded for their clean-up and following of orders by being transferred to the Harem, the position that Babur had dreamed of. Babur talking about what he plans to do, finds himself being arrested by his best friend Humayun for treason, jailed and , well you might have guessed, punished in a way that the Shah enjoys.
Humayun goes back to his post and here is where I had some problems, he is confronted by his friend Babur, now on the roof of the building speaking about running away from the troops and living in the forest (which they spoke about as something in their early days) making me think that this might be a dream allowing him to recall only the GOOD days with his friend.
As I said, the technical aspects of this production were amazing. The set (Tim Mackabee) which seemed to be very simple at the start of the play, was in fact, a powerhouse. The costumes (Bobby Frederick II ), the lighting (David Weiner) and sound/original music (Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen) and the fight choreography by Matt Hawkins, outstanding. As I said, the production was not where I had a problem. I think it was the ending that got me thinking if indeed the playwright intended for us to be able to grasp his thoughts.
“The Guards at the Taj” will continue at Steppenwolf Theatre (Upstairs Theatre) thru July 22nd with performances as follows:
Tuesdays 7:30 p.m.
Wednesdays 7:30 p.m. matinees at 2 p.m.6/27 and 7/11
Thursdays 7:30 p.m.
Fridays 7:30 p.m.
Saturdays 3 p.m. and 7:30 p.m.
Sundays 3 p.m. also at 1:30 p.m. on 7/8
Tickets run from $20 – $94 and can be purchased at the box office, by calling 312-335-1650 or online at www.steppenwolf.org
$15 student tickets can be purchased online only (subject to availability)- www.steppenwolf.org/students
Twenty tickets at $20 each are available each day- by phone only at312-335-1650 limit 2
Steppenwolf is located at 1650 N. Halsted. Parking is available at the Steppenwolf garage and parking lot adjacent to the theater and valet parking is also available. The Front Bar is a new addition to the theater with coffee and drinks as well as grab and go foods- salads, sandwiches and sharable small plates- perfect before or after the show.
RUSH tickets can be purchased (if they are available) on day of performance at fifty percent off at the box office (one hour prior to performance)
By Alan Bresloff