When Hamlet is told of the execution of his onetime friends Rosencrantz and Guildenstern, he offers this unfeeling response: “‘Tis dangerous when the baser nature comes/Between the pass and fell incensed points/Of mighty opposites.” Playwright Tom Stoppard took up the story of these lesser guys whose lives are irrelevant to the mighty in his Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Here the royal tragedy takes place almost entirely off stage, and we get to watch the bored — and doomed — couple passing the time between their scenes with games, wordplay and speculation on free will versus determinism. Uselessly, because their fate has already been written.
Humayun and Babur, the guards in Rajiv Joseph’s Guards at the Taj, don’t exactly come between “mighty opposites,” but between an all-powerful ruler and his megalomania. Their lives, however, are equally insignificant. This two-man play, currently in a regional premiere with the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company, is often compared both to Stoppard’s work and to Beckett’s Waiting for Godot. Joseph’s characters spend a night standing outside the Taj Majal, a mausoleum that has just been completed and will be unveiled in the morning as one of the world’s most beautiful creations, an act of homage by Emperor Shah Jahan to his favorite wife. The guards chat; Babur comes up with oddly prescient inventions. And he’s interested in an occasional bird cry that sounds like a raven’s menacing caw. What is that?, he wants to know. Humayan considers before providing the name “red-breasted jibjab” — surely too cute to be anything but fictive.
The men are not supposed to turn and view the completed Taj, though eventually they do, of course. They are also not supposed to talk to each other, but they’re old friends and it’s a long night. Of the two, Humayun is the most respectful of authority. Babur, ebullient and irrepressible, won’t be silenced, and the consequences of his loose talk are terrible. There’s a story that says Shah Jahan ordered the architect’s hands lopped off after completion of the Taj, along with the hands of all 20,000 builders, so that the beauty of the work could never be replicated. In Joseph’s play, this myth is taken as true, and the guards are given the job of mutilation.
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While the first act is humorous and entertaining, the second is pure Grand Guignol. It takes place in a blood-soaked underground cell, with the two guards attempting to deal with the aftermath of what they’ve done. Though distressed, Humayun remains stalwart in his support for the emperor and the brutal system that provides his livelihood. Babur, however, is utterly shattered. What began as a philosophical comedy, particularly when the men discussed the nature of beauty and whether it can ever really disappear, dissolves in a welter of B-movie gore.
The story of the severed hands is a myth, and knowledge of that fact — along with the sheer impossibiity of cramming so much mayhem into a single, blood-soaked room — tends to mitigate the effect of the horrors described. But punishments as ghastly as this are committed in many countries to this day. There are places where women are still publicly stoned to death for adultery. And if you’ve the stomach for it, you can watch the hand- and head-loppings committed by the Taliban online. But if Guards at the Taj is intended to remind us of real-life atrocities and the bottomless human capacity for cruelty, it doesn’t work.
Still, the production, directed by Stephen Weitz, is well conceived and excellently acted by Sam Gilstrap as Humayun and Jihad Milhem as Babur, and though it’s a slighter work than Joseph’s brilliant Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, which was produced at the Edge Theater five years ago, it’s wonderful that BETC is bringing plays as interesting, original and contemporary as Guards at the Taj to the area.
Guards at the Taj, presented by the Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company through February 18 at the Dairy Arts Center, 2590 Walnut Street in Boulder. For more information, call 303-351-2382 or go to betc.org.