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La Jolla Playhouse offers dark comedy ‘Guards at the Taj’

“Guards at the Taj” premiering next week at La Jolla Playhouse, centers on two guards in 1640s India, tasked with mundane jobs as the Taj Mahal is being built behind them. The night before its unveiling, the lifelong-friends — who are more like brothers – are asked to do something quite terrible that divides them existentially. One of them is on the side of the Emperor to whom he pledges his allegiance, the other is reeling from what they’ve done, and is asked to defy the Emperor and revolt against his government. It’s that action that puts this play in motion.

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Written by Pulitzer Prize finalist Rajiv Joseph (“Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo”), the production marks Playhouse Associate Artistic Director Jaime Castañeda’s directorial debut at the Playhouse (Castañeda’s other local directing credits include “Welcome to Arroyo’s” at The Old Globe).

“I’m always asking myself how we can create (great) moments on stage with just a little bit of theater magic,” he said. “So when I’m approaching plays and writers I’m interested in the specific voices and theatrical gestures they provide.”

La Jolla Playhouse associate artistic director Jaime Castañeda makes his Playhouse directing debut with ‘Guards at the Taj’ by Pulitzer Prize finalist Rajiv Joseph.
La Jolla Playhouse associate artistic director Jaime Castañeda makes his Playhouse directing debut with ‘Guards at the Taj’ by Pulitzer Prize finalist Rajiv Joseph.
Ahron R. Foster

The two-member cast includes, Manu Narayan (Playhouse’s “Glengarry Glen Ross”) as Humayun and Babak Tafti (Playhouse’s “Blood and Gifts”) as Babur.

“ ‘Guards at the Taj’ has several challenges that are enticing to figure out,” Castañeda said. “Like how to stage it and create a world that is flexible, contemporary and historical. It has dark elements, along with comedic and physical challenges in terms of the production. Those things had me scratching my head, but jumping headfirst into the process.”

Castañeda said he never worked with playwright Joseph before, but was aware of his work. When this script came to the Atlantic Theater Company for its premiere, Castañeda was a strong advocate for the production.

“I knew of his work ‘Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,’ and have been a fan of his work for several years,” Castañeda said. “I thought this play was special, and I’m happy it’s getting a life and making rounds throughout the country.”

The actors, Castañeda said, “came highly recommended. Both bring unique things to the table. Manu has Indian heritage and been to the Taj Mahal, so we’ve been talking about his experience in India. Playhouse Artistic Director Christopher Ashley talked about his involvement in ‘Glengarry Glen Ross.’ Several people had talked to me about Babak and his work. A two-hander play is a delicate thing in getting the right people in the room and having them speak the same language. I’ve been blessed with both of them, especially as they have been game to try different things the last three weeks.”

He added, “This is a dark comedy thanks to a super writer who could mix the tragic and most terrible parts of our existence with the funniest and most absurd and comical moments that emerge from darker circumstances. There are scenes where my hope is the shock and the surprise comes from both of those things. In one of my favorite and most challenging scenes I’m like a Rubik’s cube on how to make these moments work on stage.”

Before Castañeda joined the Playhouse as Associate Artistic Director he served as Artistic Associate at Off-Broadway’s Atlantic Theatre Company for five years. He holds an M.F.A. in Directing from the University of Texas at Austin, was the founding Artistic Director of FireStarter Productions in Texas, and an ensemble member with American Theater Company in Chicago since 2009.

For his first go-around as a Playhouse production director, Castañeda chose a play about class and equality. “It’s definitely a story about friends who are like brothers trying to survive in 1640. They’re very much looking at it through this period of time and the building of this amazing Wonder of the World. They’re also reminded of what went into it to create such beauty in the world. It’s interesting that the core of the play is about conversation in class equality, like our world is having right now, which makes this play super relevant.”

IF YOU GO: “Guards at the Taj” runs Feb. 2-28 in the Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre at La Jolla Playhouse, 2910 La Jolla Village Drive. Tickets from $20. (858) 550-1010. lajollaplayhouse.org

Related events: ACCESS Performance: 2 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 20. Open Captioned Performance: 2 p.m. Sunday, Feb. 14. Talkback Tuesdays: Feb. 9 and 16, following the 7:30 p.m. performance. Insider Events: 6:45 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 24 and 1:15 p.m. Saturday, Feb. 27 at 1:15 p.m. Discovery Sunday: Feb. 28, after 2 p.m. performance. Foodie Friday: 6 p.m. Feb. 19.