Rajiv Joseph’s Guards at the Taj at La Jolla Playhouse articulates the beautiful and the terrible, and does so in a manner that may leave you dazed. While the beautiful is mostly in your imagination, the terrible is blatant in its gruesome aftermath, making this not an evening for the weak of heart or stomach.
The prodigious Joseph crafted the Pulitzer-nominated Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, most recently seen in San Diego at ion theatre in 2013. Guards at the Taj is a lesser work by comparison, but it does raise wrenching philosophical inquiries about life, death, duty and beauty, and it sure as hell raises hair on the back of your neck. The hypothetical premise is that two 17th-century guards (Manu Narayan and Babak Tafti) posted outside the yet-unveiled Taj Mahal are subsequently ordered to chop the hands off of all 20,000 workers who built the Taj, thereby ensuring that nothing as magnificent would ever be built afterward. There is no historical documentation marking this as fact, but the mere notion of it is shuddering and Joseph’s one-act play will consume you in its haunted characters and graphic images.
None of this is foreshadowed in the play’s first 15 minutes or so, which finds the two guards breaking their code of silence outside the hidden Taj, riffing and ragging on each other, and inventing fantastical means of travel and transcending space. What happens after the first scene break is a horrifying 180, and frankly any attempts at quips and riffing from then on are nervous, failed distractions – for the characters and for the audience.
The Playhouse’s associate artistic director, Jaime Castaneda, directs this production, which is uncompromising in its denouncement of tyranny, arrogance and privilege, in and out of historical context. The two guards were ordered to “kill beauty,” in the words of Babur (Tafti), a crime just as heinous as the mutilations they carried out.
Guards at the Taj is at the very least an uncomfortable sit for theatergoers, in spite of bracing performances by both Narayan and Tafti, Thomas Ontiveros’ lighting and Cricket S. Myers’ sound design. Just remember, beauty has its flip side.
David L. Coddon is a Southern California theater critic.