CTC’s “Guards at the Taj” is a Beauty
The winding Route 20 heading east out of Lee can take you to some exotic places. It ranges past Jacob’s Pillow in Becket, and just a little farther down the road is the Chester Theatre Company performing in the Chester Town Hall and for the next week, you can travel to India and the Taj Mahal, where Rajiv Joseph’s “Guards of the Taj” is being given a fantastic production directed by Reena Dutt.
We are waiting for dawn when the show opens, which will reveal the Taj in all its beauty and glory. The titular characters are Humayan, played by Ruchir Khazanchi with an open, appealing loyalty which proves tragic by the end of the play; and the live wire Babur, played with intense mischievous creativity by Abuzar Farrukh. The two are charged with guarding the Taj and forbidden to look at it. Humayan is standing at attention while Babur hurtles in adjusting himself and eager to parlay this lowly job into a better gig, like guarding the royal harem.
Both characters are named after previous Mughal emperors who ruled medieval India for three centuries. Shah Juhan was the fifth Mughal emperor who presided over the building of the Taj Mahal, which was initiated by him as a tribute to his favorite wife who died giving birth a thirteenth time. We are going to see this majestic creation, one of the man-made marvels of the world, which took twenty years to build, thousands of recruited help from all over and material imported throughout Asia through the eyes of two ordinary guys who must stand watch over the premises of the building but who are denied the right to even look at the building.
One of the myths surrounding this magnificent creation was that Shah Juhan was so pleased and possessed with the structure that he ordered all 20,000 workers to have their hands chopped off so that they could never contribute to something that could rival the Taj Mahal’s beauty. The second scene in the play opens in the grisly aftermath of the vast behandings where Farrukh severed the hands, and Khazanchi cauterized.
Babur reacts with shock and murderous rage to his being enlisted into this barbarism, while Humayan must do as ordered. Babur, the fanciful thinker who imagines the airplane hundreds of years before its existence, follows the logic that if “nothing so beautiful as the Taj Mahal can ever be built again,” and if he lopped off the hands that built this beauty, then he killed beauty. Humayan is forced to deal with his friend’s anguish. Throughout the play, they talk to each other with very modern and relatable dialogue.
CTC does its usual fine job with the technical elements, including very fine lights by James McNamara, sound by Naveen Bhatia, and a workable set and evocative backdrop by Travis George. Oona Natesan designed the very handsome costumes. Special mention must also be made of the stage crew team, who spent the entire intermission cleaning up after the 40,000 hand separation.
I was thrilled when Chester announced their season, and “Guards at the Taj” was on their roster. It’s a play that has been on my wish list of plays to catch for a long time; its premiere was at the Atlantic Theatre Company in 2015. It is a heady play of ideas about power, class, art, and accessibility, all while being very, very funny, sometimes in a grisly way. My first fondly remembered discovery trip to Chester was to see Rajiv Joseph’s “Animals Out of Paper” 11 years ago, and it is revivifying to see them, under the new leadership of James Barry & Tara Franklin, continue to support this extraordinary playwright with this great play which carries echoes of Beckett, Stoppard, and McDonagh. This is not the play that people are referring to when they say theaters in trouble should be booking known quantities that will draw audiences in…but it is for me.
“Guards at the Taj” is a beauty that you should absolutely take the risk to gaze upon…it is not a common sight at all.
“Guards at the Taj” plays at Chester Theatre Company through 7/18—tickets: 413-354-7771 or www.chestertheatre.org.