Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Albuquerque/Santa Fe

Guards at the Taj

The Vortex Theatre
Review by Carla Cafolla

Also see Dean's review of Rumors and Rob's review of Quartet

Miguel Martinez and Ray Rey Griego
Photo by Ryan Dobbs
I've long thought that painting history with a broad brush robs us of the magic of the story. Seanachaí (Celtic storytellers of long ago) understood the power of oral narrative, often a mixture of myth and truth. By entrancing listeners with tales so softly told, an abrupt denouement was often as startling as it was tragic.

Guards at the Taj by Rajiv Joseph is, I think, such a saga. So dark as to be opaque, this tragi-comedy tells of the eve of the unveiling of the newly completed Taj Mahal, as seen through the eyes of two low-ranking guards. The script is written in a casually anachronistic manner, beginning with humor as two boyhood friends who for 16 years have worked together as guards at this very spot, always on the least popular early shift. They are tasked to stand sentinel, silent and still, swords at the ready, facing away from yet protecting a wall built to prevent anyone from stealing a glimpse of an almost completed monument. The two characters became quite real as we follow their development though the decade long timespan.

We learn from their forbidden, lighthearted (Babur), sometimes chastising (Humayun) chatter of Shah Jahan's desire to build a memorial to honor his third wife who died giving birth to their 14th child; his demand it be "the most beautiful thing ever made"; his hiring famed architect Ustad Isa along with a combined total of 20,000 artisans, laborers and slaves to create and complete (what we now know as one of the seven wonders of the modern world) the Taj Mahal.

In a manner similar to Waiting for Godot, we understand as much about the two guards themselves as we do about their differing opinions of the Shah. They also provide a clear picture of the vast economic and cultural chasm, the absolute power of the Shah, and their (mostly) unquestioning obedience to the status quo.

Humayun is by the book, straitlaced, still desperately seeking his father's (the chief guard) approval. Babur is free-spirited, imaginative, and eerily prescient, telling of his conceptual creation of what seems to be a modern day airplane. They both dream of a better life and, as the birds sing and whistle in the background, reminisce about their adolescent adventures when they had built a raft in a tree with only tigers and snakes to fear. Their reactions to the Shah's decree that all workers involved in the construction of the Taj, including the architect, are to have both hands amputated in order to ensure no other such building could be built, and the realization they would be the ones carrying out the edict, swiftly changes the mood.

The script from scene two on is heartrending, and Joseph's dialogue for both characters is beautiful and touching. The aftermath of the mass mutilations shows the shift in character both men make in order to survive the trauma of their actions, and the author makes their passionate debates and philosophical arguments regarding the rights to create beauty and the ensuing costs, versus the rights of the people and the ethics surrounding the right to destroy and deny future creations, central to the script's message. The opposing opinions are personified in Babur's impending shell-shock and Humayun's rhetoric, which contains more than a whiff of the Nuremberg defense. The ending, the conclusion of this (absurdist, per the author) script is as tragic as it is plausible—perhaps we all pave the way to our own individual hell.

This is an immense script for its size—running approx 80 minutes with no intermission. As Comstock points out in his director's note, there is far more to it than first appears. This is an understatement. It's an ambitious play, one which would test the acting chops of veteran stage players and directors.

Ray Rey Griego and Miguel Martinez play Humayun and Babur, respectively, and while they visually resemble the characters created in my mind, their imbalanced acting experience becomes evident early in the play. Martinez' Babur is far more convincing and natural than Griego's Humayun. Despite this obvious disparity, their relationship is positive onstage and they work well together. But their uneven comprehension and expression of the characters they play often make the audience unsure how to react. Martinez for the most part inhabits Babur, and his motivations come from his character. The seeming disconnect between the actors in relation to the onstage creation of the script's objectives are disconcerting; in a particularly agonizing scene in the cell, Babur's desperation earns a flippant response from Humayun, ruining what should have been as pivotal a stage moment as it is in the script. Perhaps the interpretation isn't clearly communicated, or perhaps it was just a bad night.

When I saw the play, there were a number of technical difficulties: the blackouts during the four scene changes were long and drained audience interest and the story's momentum—people around me chatted and whispered throughout. Additionally, crew movement behind the scenes was noisy and distracting—in one particular incident, clanking of chains from behind the "wall" raised a few nervous giggles from the audience. There was also difficulty experienced by the actors exiting the cell via the canvas "door." These things (and a lot worse), happen. That they all happened on the night I was present is unfortunate, because there is much good to say about this production.

The sound designer, Josh Brown, does a stellar job enchanting the production. Rhonda Backinoff as costume designer is perfect; she and her team are to be commended. The costumes and the impression they gave, especially Humayun in the final scene, are spot on. Props by Claudia Mathes and Steppenwolf Theatre are all you could ask for. The design and production team (set designed, built, and painted by Leslee Richards, Ryan Jason Cook, and Petifoger, respectively) are obviously on the same page and it shows in its overall cohesion.

Guards at the Taj is an ambitious undertaking and I admire the courage it takes to stage a new, technically innovative, multi-layered play—a two-hander, with one actor new to treading the boards. The Vortex makes a valiant effort, but overall, misses the mark.

Guards at the Taj, through May 19, 2019, at The Vortex Theatre, 2900 Carlisle Blvd, NE, Albuquerque NM. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 7:30pm, Sundays at 2:00pm. Tickets are $24. For tickets and information, visit, call 505-247-8600, or visit the box office. There is a talkback after the Sunday, May 5th performance.