Let’s Review: ‘Guards at The Taj’

What happens when a man so intent on performing his job to every extent expected of him, encounters a partner who is opposed to those intentions? That’s what unfolds in La Jolla Playhouse’s production “Guards At The Taj,” directed by Playhouse Associate Artistic Director Jaime Castañeda.

The Taj Mahal, one of the Seven Wonders of the World, is a stunning, white-marble mausoleum commissioned in 1632 by Mughul Emperor Shah Jahan on the southern bank of the Yamuna River near Agra, India, for the remains of his beloved wife, Mumtaz Mahal. Pulitzer Prize finalist, playwright Rajiv Joseph (“Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo”), choose the Taj Mahal as the setting for his unique and absurd story.

Humayun (Manu Narayan) finds himself in charge of guarding the construction of the Taj Mahal the night before it’s unveiled to the public. A guard of this position has an extreme list of do’s and don’ts to follow, and a violation of even one of these is punishable by death. The drama opens with Humayun standing motionless, sword over his shoulder, alarmed when even a bird chirps.

Humayun is not the only guard this night. His partner and buddy is Babur (Babak Tafti), who causes Humayun instant dread when he shows up late. Luckily, no one else is around to notice. Then Babak begins a stream of purpose-less dialogue and Humayun is consumed with worry over what might happen if his friend doesn’t stop talking. He demands Babak shut up or they will be killed. Their instructions are so stringent, they are not even allowed to turn around and look at the building.

However, this is not the worst that will happen this night.

The pair is assigned a task so gruesome, it will challenge their sanity and ability to complete it. Because Humayun has pledged his allegiance to the Emperor, while Babur wants to defy the Emperor and revolt against that system of government, their friendship is also in jeopardy.

Castañeda acknowledged that the Playhouse had challenges staging and creating a world that is flexible and both contemporary and historical. Patrons know the Playhouse designers usually surprise them. The stage, beginning as void of anything but a wall and the two actors, will at one point (after a short lights-out), surprise the audience with the revelation of the two men now maybe beyond survival.

Narayan and Tafti were perfectly cast. They accomplish the stillness, seriousness and, ultimately, the terror and anxiety, they need to reveal this inimitable story.

IF YOU GO: “Guards at the Taj” runs through Feb. 28 in the Potiker Theatre at La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive, on UC San Diego campus. Tickets from $20. (858) 550-1010.