Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Washington, D.C.

Guards at the Taj
Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
Review by Susan Berlin | Season Schedule

Also see Susan's reviews of Shake Loose, Father Comes Home from the Wars (Parts 1, 2 and 3), and The City of Conversation

Kenneth De Abrew and Ethan Hova
Photo by Scott Suchman
Where can one begin writing about Rajiv Joseph's play Guards at the Taj, now at Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company in Washington? It's a deeply philosophical consideration of beauty and friendship, questioning the place of the individual in an uncaring world and the role of artistic creation and luxury next to poverty—and it has moments of both humor and shock, all in 90 minutes with two characters.

The setting is Agra, India, in 1648, just before dawn on the day the Taj Mahal will be revealed to the public. Humayun (Ethan Hove), tall and serious about following rules, and Babur (Kenneth De Abrew), shorter and more inclined to dream, are imperial guards whose responsibility is to guard the structure while facing away from it; Misha Kachman's scenic design and especially Jen Schriever's lighting design make the iconic building appear gradually in the viewer's imagination. As they await the sunrise, when the long-hidden construction will finally take its place, they talk about the meaning of the stars, the beauty of birds and jungle greenery, and their desire to have a greater role in society.

Humayun recounts to Babur the history of the Taj Mahal: Sixteen years earlier, Emperor Shah Jahan ordained that the mausoleum for his queen must be the most beautiful building in the world, ordering the artisans and laborers to live in seclusion until they completed the job. Now it's finished and the Shah has decreed that nothing more beautiful than the Taj Mahal can exist, forcing the guards to perform an act that pushes them into uncharted physical and mental territory. (Kachman has designed the thrust stage in a way that the floor literally seems to drop away.)

Under the relentless pace of Vreeke's direction, the guards see their certainties vanish and the future become terrifyingly vague. The actors are well matched as Hova, as Humayun, solemnly tries to maintain the proprieties of his position, which the more boyish De Abrew, as Babur, can't help but wander through reveries about what lies beyond the parameters of their lives.

Woolly Mammoth Theatre Company
Guards at the Taj
February 1st – 28th
By Rajiv Joseph
Humayun: Ethan Hova
Babur: Kenneth De Abrew
Directed by John Vreeke
641 D St. N.W., Washington, DC
Ticket Information: 202-393-3939 or

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