(l to r) Omar Metwally and Arian Moayed in Steppenwolf’s ‘Guards at the Taj.’
(Photo: Michael Brosilow)
Almost 10 years into a theater criticism career on the Windy City beat, I experienced a first after the proverbial curtain dropped on Guards at the Taj, the haunting new production from Steppenwolf Theatre Company. Before I could find the way to Halsted Street to catch a ride home with my husband, I needed a few minutes to regroup in the restroom. I’m not talking a couple solitary tears. It was a full-on ugly cry. It’s not often that one encounters a work that makes such an immediate, visceral and I suspect, long-lasting impression on the psyche.
The play by 2010 Pulitzer Prize finalist Rajiv Joseph is so many things at once: a wry comedy, a beautiful story of friendship, a timeless examination of cultural stigmas, the burdens of duty and the limited choices that confront the poor and powerless each day. The work is a brilliant, linguistic joy, as well as incredibly difficult to watch. Neither Joseph nor director (and Steppenwolf ensemble member) Amy Morton allows the audience to retreat from the conflicting tensions baked into this amazing, one-act piece.
Morton directed the world premiere of Guards at the Taj at the Atlantic Theater Company in 2015 and reunites with original cast members Omar Metwally (Humayun) and Arian Moayed (Babur) for the production’s Chicago premiere.
Set in India in the year 1648, press materials describe the plot as follows:
“The dawn will reveal for the first time the extraordinary beauty of the Taj Mahal, built as a tribute to the ruler who demanded its construction. But for two hapless imperial guards, the morning light brings with it an unspeakable task that will shake their faith in God, the empire and their lifelong friendship. This boldly funny and deeply moving play examines the true meaning of beauty and the cost of transcendence in a world that confuses the value of both.”
This framing of the story is concise but not even close to covering the full range of human experience and emotion that unfolds over the production’s 80-minute running time. So much of the credit is owed to Metwally and Moayed, Tony-nominated stage veterans whose careers I will henceforth make it an explicit business to follow.
The chemistry between the two actors, the only performers seen and heard as the plot moves forward, is the foundation that supports the production’s perfectly landed emotional punches. Only a relationship as full of love, commitment, humor and nuance as that between Humayun and Babur could end with such gutting emotional trauma. Metwally and Moayed are incredibly well-matched talents.
The actors are supported by stellar production work from Tim Mackabee (scenic design), Michael Bodeen (sound design and original music), Bobby Tilley (costume design), and Matt Hawkins (fight choreographer), among others. Without ever catching an actual glimpse of the vaunted Wonder of the World, the audience feels the daytime heat of India’s desert climate, hears the calls of distinct birds (adored by the dutiful, yet poetic Humayun) and comprehends the sense of awe at gazing upon a fantastic feat of architecture and artistry in the pre-industrial era.
It’s more than a set of neat tricks, this transportation into another place from the distant past. The connections between Humayun and Babur’s 17th century Agra and global society in the 21st century cannot be ignored. It’s not just the vast financial and cultural gulf between the haves and the have-nots, but the dismissal and even hatred of the oppressed by ruling ideologists. There are the false choices between starving individualism, or morally compromised survival.
And at its core, Guards at the Taj is the story of two people, as close as siblings, forced to make unthinkable choices for the sake of living another day. The post-show bathroom sob was driven by empathy for the convincing fictional characters onstage, as well as a deeply felt panic that four centuries hasn’t changed humanity much.
Guards at the Taj
1650 N Halsted, Chicago, IL
Through July 22
Becky Sarwate is an award-winning journalist, theater critic, blogger, and author of Cubsessions: Famous Fans of Chicago’s North Side Baseball Team (Eckhartz Press). She is a proud Chicago resident, where Becky lives with her husband Bob and their cats, Wendy and Lisa. Check out her collected work at BeckySarwate.com, and follow her on Twitter @BeckySarwate.