"Guards at the Taj" -- ★ ★ ★ ★
At the end of the lengthy opening scene in Steppenwolf Theatre's "Guards at the Taj," about a pair of low-level imperial flunkies standing watch at the Taj Mahal, we comprehend what the fuss is about.
We don't actually see the masterwork in Rajiv Joseph's inventive two-hander. Accomplished as they are, set designer Tim Mackabee and lighting designer David Weiner can't conjure the 17th-century mausoleum Indian emperor Shah Jahan commissioned as a memorial for his favorite wife. They don't have to. We experience it through the rapt expressions on the faces of guards and lifelong friends Babur (Arian Moayed) and Humayun (Omar Metwally). Defying orders, the men gaze upon the Taj Mahal. Bathed in a pearly glow, they stand transfixed by its beauty, their joy palpable.
The scene emerges as a quietly thrilling testament to art's awesome power. Later, we see the price that art extracted.
Indeed, indescribable beauty gives way to unspeakable cruelty in Joseph's terse, artfully dense drama, which also addresses loyalty and betrayal, conformity and rebellion and the awe-inspiring nature of friendship. To what lengths would you go for the sake of friendship? What would you forgive?
All of these themes are compacted into an intermissionless drama that tickles the funny bone, delights the ear and shocks the system all within 80 magnificent minutes. But be forewarned: "Guards at the Taj" references extreme violence, which may be inappropriate for young or sensitive theatergoers.
The engrossing production is directed by Steppenwolf's Amy Morton. She also directed 2015's off-Broadway premiere, which included designers Mackabee and Weiner and stars Metwally and Moayed, who originated their roles.
We meet Metwally's genially indulgent yet ever-cautious Humayun, the scion of a military family consigned to the lowest rank, on his pre-dawn watch at the Taj Mahal. He's joined by his longtime friend, the visionary, perpetually tardy Babur (an irrepressible Moayed). Together they await the dawn and the unveiling of the majestic tomb 16 years in the making.
They pass the time bantering, imagining themselves assigned to a plum post in the royal harem. Babur waxes poetic about the stars and his latest fantasy, a flying machine. The more grounded Humayun shares news about the 20,000 artisans, architects and slaves who built the Taj. After the lead architect asked workers be allowed to see their creation, the enraged shah (according to the myth that inspired the play) ordered all of them behanded, to punish the affront and ensure the Taj will remain man's most beautiful creation.
We next encounter the men in a blood-soaked dungeon. Traumatized and guilt-stricken, Humayun and Babur reflect on their part in the decree in a wrenching exchange about resistance, compliance and how easily they fell into their assigned roles. They did as ordered, rationalizes Humayun in an attempt to assuage his grief. But for the newly radicalized Babur, that justification rings hollow.
Joseph's writing is provoking, lyrical and occasionally funny. And Metwally and Moayed speak Joseph's lines as if they were tailor-made. And they were, according to the playwright, who worked closely with the actors during the writing of the play.
Metwally and Moayed are sympathetic and likable as a pair of regular guys doing their jobs. But below the surface there is a deep, abiding bond poignantly reflected in Babur's quiet plea in the play's penultimate scene.
As gestures go, it's not as grand as the shah's tribute to his dead wife. But it's no less profound and equally enduring.
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Location: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St., Chicago, (312) 335-1650 or steppenwolf.org
Showtimes: 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Friday; 3 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and Sunday; through July 22. Also 2 p.m. June 27 and July 11. No show July 4. No 7:30 p.m. shows July 1, 15 and 22.
Running time: About 80 minutes, no intermission
Parking: $12 in the parking garage adjacent to the theater; limited street parking
Rating: For mature audiences; references extreme violence