As any Downton Abbey fan will tell you — if you want to know the real story, ask the help. The folks downstairs always have a much fuller understanding of what’s actually going on than those upstairs.
If that’s true in a palatial Edwardian estate, it’s even more so at the Taj Mahal, built in 1643 by Shah Jahan as a memorial for his beloved wife (one of several wives, actually, but who’s counting?) The glorious Taj is a wonder of the world — a monument to love, beauty, and formal perfection.
What’s happening behind the scenes is a whole other thing.
You don’t get much more downstairs than the guards in Rajiv Joseph’s flawed but compelling play. These two are so lowly, they’re not even allowed to look at the Taj, which here is in the final stages of completion. Their job is simply to keep watch. In the initial set up, the two make a perfect comedic team – Humayun (played by Anthony Mustafa Adair) is rigid, a rule-follower; Babur (Jenson Titus Lavallee) is a slacker and a dreamer.
But the funny tone soon proves to be a false-front. When Shah Jahan calls for punishment to rectify an imagined slight by the Taj architect and builders, the consequences are horrific. It becomes poignantly clear that Babur’s dreams — fantasies about escaping into the stars — are a coping mechanism; neither he nor Humayun have much real hope of moving up in the world.
It took me a while to warm to Joseph’s play, but by the midpoint, I was hooked. Like Waiting for Godot, which I think Guards emulates and honors, the vaudeville shtick here serves sweeping existential questions.
Also as in Godot, navigating the shifts in tone is a challenge. Director Deborah Block does it through striking imagery that is at once beautiful and frightening. It’s trickier for the actors. Both are charming in the lightweight badinage; Lavallee is considerably better at the hair-pin turns from comedy to terror to heartbreak.
Guards at the Taj comes in and out of focus, but a day after seeing it, I’m still thinking about it. Joseph packs a lot into 90-minutes, and his work deserves to be seen.
Guards at the Taj plays through November 13. For more information, visit the Theatre Exile website.