Playwright: Rajiv Joseph
At: Steppenwolf, 1650 N. Halsted St. Tickets: 312-335-1650; Steppenwolf.org; $20-$94. Runs through: July 22
Legend has it that after India's Taj Mahal was completed in 1648, Mughal Emperor Shah Jahan ordered the hands cut off from the 20,000 laborers who constructed the world wonder. The tale is apocryphal but enduring, a brutal addenda to an epic monument dedicated to love and beauty.
With Guards at the Taj, playwright Rajiv Joseph explores the lore through the eyes of two low-level imperial guards, the unlucky pair assigned to enact the Emperor's barbarous orders. The shock value inherent to their duties is unavoidable, but in director Amy Morton's staging, atrocity isamazinglynot what you'll remember most. There's no question that the violence onstage is graphic and profoundly disturbing. But equally strong is the 80-minute drama's exploration of beauty, friendship and the plight of decent, common folkx snared in a nightmare they have no chance of escaping or combatting.
For guards and lifelong friends Humayun ( Omar Metwally ) and Babur ( Arian Moayed ), the avoidance of evil is an unaffordable luxury. Their lives are defined by intractable systems of caste, economics and the dictums of an immeasurably cruel ruler. Unbearable guilt is not worst thing they grapple with in the wake of their ruthless obligations. Babur is tortured by the certainty that in carrying out orders, he has killed beauty itself.
The questions Joseph juxtaposes are enthralling, even if you'd rather not confront them. Can beauty truly exist when it is inextricably woven into unforgivable savagery? As Joseph depicts with exquisite effectiveness, the Taj's beauty was literally blinding when sunrise hit its faÃžade ( gorgeous work by lighting designer David Weiner. ) It stuns Babur and Humayun into wonderstruck silence. For a moment, they exist in perfection.
But the moment fades. After that glorious dawn, Babur and Humayun are left to struggle with beauty's cost.
The first thing that hits you is the foreboding, monolithic wall Babur and Humayan stand before. Set designer Tim Mackabee's structure is a sea of battered, implacable gray, a barrier as forbidding and opaque any border wall in the contemporary United States. When it hinges up to reveal what lies behind, the audience is hurled into beauty's opposite: Irrevocable, wanton destruction.
Beyond the wall, Macakbee's set is ankle deep in blood, the wreckage of countless human lives strewn like garbage in the syrupy crimson sludge. Humayun and Barbar are soaked, their clothes sticky with blood, their hair matted in damp clumps, their skin defaced by crimson smears.
Both men are unforgettable. You will come to care for both of them, and when they face soul-crushing loss, the pain is acute. Moayed's Babur is a gentle spirit, prone to intelligent flights of fancy and irreverent jokes. As Humayun, Metwally is the sterner, more cautious and more pragmatic of the two, a man able to compartmentalize monstrosity if that's is the price of keeping mind and body whole.
Morton's direction relentlessly illustrates just what that price entails, mentally, physically and spiritually. The final moments of Guards are suffused with light and love. Beautyin forms physical or ephemeralsurvives. But so does cruelty. In Joseph's words, their intersection is an unforgettable merger of joy and despair.