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Regional Reviews: San Diego

Guards at the Taj
La Jolla Playhouse
Review by Bill Eadie | Season Schedule

Also see Bill's review of The Metromaniacs


Manu Narayan and Babak Tafti
Photo by Jim Carmody
In his poem "Ode on a Grecian Urn," John Keats famously wrote, "'Beauty is truth, truth beauty,—that is all/Ye know on earth, and all ye need to know.'" Rajiv Joseph's new play Guards at the Taj illustrates how the truth of, say, an urn's beauty might be knowable, but truth gets fuzzier when applied to the beauty of relationships.

Humayun (Manu Narayan) and Babur (Babak Tafti) stand guard outside the construction site for the Taj Mahal in Agra, India. They are somewhat unalike. Humayun lives in the shadow of his father, in whose footsteps he has traveled, career-wise. Babur is a dreamer, an inventor, and standing guard all day is useful to him in that it keeps him out of trouble. He dreams of guarding the Emperor's harem.

Now, these two are not supposed to talk while on duty, but they do. Babur shares his inventions and his dreams, while Humayun gets nervous that they might be caught violating the rules. They talk about the nature of beauty and how the Taj Mahal is supposed to be the most beautiful thing ever constructed. They also gossip about the construction project, which is nearly finished, and they wonder what might happen to them after it is done.

That answer comes sooner than later in this 75-minute, no intermission, play. I won't tell you what it is, other than to disclose that it involves a good deal of stage blood (for those of you who are squeamish, while the blood is copious it is not likely to set off any alarms). The task reveals the Emperor as more of a tyrant than might be imagined. Humayun clings to his rule-following as a way of coping, though Babur's dreams and fantasies become more appealing than they were when the two were standing guard.

A rift happens and Humayun takes a course of action that he thinks will protect his friend. It has the opposite effect.

Guards at the Taj resembles in some way Tom Stoppard's Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. The similarities are, to a degree, striking. Both plays place minor characters in a larger story front and center (Joseph in the construction of the Taj, Stoppard in Shakespeare's Hamlet), both deal with philosophic topics such as the nature of existence and the nature of beauty, and both show the ways men cope when they are at the mercy of tyrannical monarchs. Mr. Joseph's play is more visual, less rhetorical, and, in the end, less affecting. But, just being able to make the comparison is a compliment to Mr. Joseph.

This production marks Playhouse Associate Director Jaime Castañeda's company debut as director (though, it is not his San Diego debut—he helmed a fine production of Kristoffer Diaz's Welcome to Arroyo's at The Old Globe). Mr. Castañeda does detailed character work with his actors and oversees a minimalist production (scenic design by Takeshi Kata, costume design by Sue Makkoo, lighting design by Thomas Ontiveros, and sound design by Cricket S. Myers) that allows the layered character work to play out. It's an auspicious debut and bodes well for future work.

While Guards at the Taj doesn't dazzle in the way that Mr. Joseph's Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo did, it will provide rewards for audience members willing to puzzle through the philosophy and find their own truth in the often-hidden beauty of these two men's relationship.

La Jolla Playhouse presents Guards at the Taj by Rajiv Joseph. Performing Tuesdays through Sundays, through February 28, 2016, at the Playhouse's Sheila and Hughes Potiker Theatre, on the campus of the University of California, San Diego. Tickets available by calling (858) 550-1010 or by visiting www.lajollaplayhouse.org.

- Bill Eadie


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