I’ve always loved a good buddy story. Butch and Sundance, Thelma and Louise, Oscar and Felix…you get it. One is always solid, pragmatic while the other is more spontaneous, creative, free-falling through life because the other buddy is both the emotional safety net and soft place to land. Road Less Traveled Productions has the ultimate in buddy experiences onstage until December 11.
The two Guards at the Taj share that same rapport. Babur (Darryl Samira) and Humayun (Afrim Gjonbalaj) are on the lower rung of imperial guards gate-keeping the 22 year construction of the Taj Mahal. They are to follow a strict protocol: they are to keep their backs to the construction site at all times with swords raised in their right hands; they are not to speak; and they are not to scale the wall to sneak a peek at the beauty that is being created behind them. No, they are not to see the work of 20,000 laboring men. But these young guards, who also shared military experience, are curious. Even through Humayun keeps reminding Babur to be quiet, stand tall, take this role seriously, they do fall into the easy banter of two guys on the job, until they realize that their work will include an unthinkable, unfathomable task. You see, the architect has asked the Shah to allow the workforce to view the completed Taj Mahal before it’s revealed to the rest of Agra and the world. This is an affront to the Shah, and there will be consequences. Babur can’t fathom that, nor can he zip his lip about his opinions, despite Humayun’s emphatic reminders. And this is where the buddy story takes a dark turn.
Playwright Rajiv Joseph’s award-winning script was inspired by myths, legends, and some history about how the Taj Mahal was constructed. The result is an intense and emotional experience that examines the boundaries of loyalty, honesty, and family responsibility.
Both Semira and Gjonbalaj are exceptional here. It’s easy to get caught up in Semira’s boyish curiosity and enthusiasm as he dreams out loud about inventing a flying machine and seeing the world. Yet Humayun’s respect for rules has its virtue, too. This is riveting theatre that will linger in your mind as you reflect on its content and pull away the layers of their words, their actions, and the consequences they will face. It’s good to see Semira in this role after playing Arthur is MusicalFare Theatre’s easy-to-forget staging of Camelot. Gjonbalaj has a penchant for rich, complex roles as his character in RLTP’s Disgraced in 2018 and last season in D’Youville Kavinoky’s fierce People, Places, and Things.
Dyan Burlingame’s set is austere: the façade of a construction site is pretty blasé, but add John Rickus’ vibrant lighting design and Kate Menke’s sound that you can almost feel and the whole effect is unified and powerful. Director Kate Mallinson had a rich palette here.
I’ll be blunt: there were some scenes that were hard to watch. And they were meant to be that way. The 17th century was a brutal time and a grieving, entitled monarch could make his own rules.
Guards at the Taj runs just under 90 minutes with no intermission. Find info and a link to tickets at http://www.roadlesstraveledproductions.org.