We loved this show. We really loved it. Rajiv Joseph's "Guards at the Taj" is painfully funny, and you laugh when you know you shouldn't, which makes it better. It is dark and preposterous, so I guess we must be too.
One Act, 80 minutes. The show harkens back to the legend of Shah Jahan, the Seventeenth Century Moghul ruler of India, who built the Taj Mahal as a shrine to the memory of his deceased wife. It was to be the most beautiful building in the world, reflecting the light of the moon on the saddened and parched Earth.
The legend continues that after the building's completion, the Shah ordered that all 20,000 workers, including the architect, would have their hands cut off so they could never again try to replicate an edifice of such beauty.
Twenty-First Century meme: the Evil Egomaniacal Emperor. At least Shah Jahan left us the Taj Mahal, not a basket of tacky hotels.
The story is told through the eyes of the two guards, standing next to each other, who have been stationed in front of the in-construction palace for sixteen years, while it was being built. They have the lowest-status, worst jobs in the Moghul Guard world, and they know they won't even be allowed to turn around to see the Taj when it is completed, which is scheduled for that very morning when the sun comes up. The penalty would be death.
They also know that somebody is going to have to chop off all those hands, and, being at the bottom of the ladder, it is probably going to be them.
So here we have the ancient, past, present and future dilemma of man: Our ruler might be horrible, but our life right now is pretty soft. Should we blow the whistle? To whom? Or should we spend an entire night at the chopping block brandishing a sword and a cauterizing iron, and then the next day on our knees mopping up the blood?
Jason Kapoor (right, above) and Rushi Kota are wonderful, each in his own way. Kapoor, as Humayun, has pull, because his father is high up in the power structure. He is inclined to keep his nose down and pretend not to notice any irregularities.
40,000 hands to cut off, not easy to ignore.
Kota, as Babur, the perennially late and far more questioning partner, is outraged at the horror of the situation he and his friend Humayun find themselves facing. He knows their action will condemn 20,000 hand-less men to a life of begging, and that every one of those men will know who cut their hands off. He wants to stand on principle. The penalty, of course, is being pulled apart by an elephant.
There is also an apple dangling over their heads, which is a possible promotion to Moghul Guard heaven: guarding the emperor at the royal Harem.
"Oooh, naked women everywhere," Babur fantasizes.
"Remember, YOU CAN'T LOOK," Humayun reminds him.
We loved Kapoor and Kota equally. This is Humayun's story to tell, but the friendship between the two guards permeates everything. Shall we say it again? We love these two. They need a weekly show.
Also, Annie Smart's set, Mike Post's lights and Fumiko Beilefeldt's costumes are perfect. Make that bloody perfect.
Caveat: several people we spoke with after the show, including a few of our fellow reviewers, did not appreciate "Guards." It was far too dark for them. My wife was on their side. What does this say about your singular reviewer?
It says I know when something works. Please run to Marin to catch Kapoor and Kota doing this show while you can. Have dinner before the show. Afterwards, maybe not a good idea.
RATINGS: ☼ ☼ ☼ ☼ !
The San Francisco Theater Blog Bloody Indian Fable Department of the Plain Old Awards Division awards "Guards at the Taj" FOUR STARS with an EXCLAMATION POINT! The Exclamation Point is for Babur's matter-of-fact observation: "Swearing an oath not to talk? CONTRADICTION!"
"Guards at the Taj"
Marin Thjeater Company
397 Miller Avenue, Mill Valley
Through May 21, 2017