By Mary Boyle
The Taj Mahal, built by Emperor Shah Jahal as a memorial for his favorite wife, who died giving birth to their 14th child, is the greatest architectural achievement in India, and one of the finest example of Islamic art in existence. Built between 1632 and 1653 AD, the construction employed over 20,000 artisans from across the land, led by the emperor's chief architect, Ustad Ahmad Lahauri. While the facts about the Taj Mahal make for an interesting story on their own, the legends are much wilder. One of those legends is that Shah Jahal ordered the hands chopped off of every artisan who worked on his beloved wife's memorial, including his chief architect's, so that nothing as beautiful as the Taj could ever be built again. This is the legend that is explored in the play Guards at the Taj, which can be seen through November 4th with the Milwaukee Rep.
Humayun (Yousof Sultani) and Babur (Owa'Ais Azeem) have been friends since they were boys. Despite the fact that Humayun's father is an esteemed officer in the Emperor's army, he must start at the bottom rung, alongside Babur, which means they get the jobs nobody else wants, like guarding the back entrance gate to the Taj Mahal, which has been under construction for 16 years. Still, if they do their jobs well, perhaps one day they will get the most coveted job of all: guarding the emperor's harem. Finally, the day has arrived when the Taj Mahal will be revealed to all, and the two friends can't resist turning around at dawn and taking a peek when the sun's light first hits the building: never have they seen such beauty made by men. They talk of the rumor that the Shah has ordered all 20,000 of the artisans' hands to be removed, so they might never build anything as beautiful as the Taj again. They wonder who will get that horrible job...
Written by Rajiv Joseph and directed by Brent Hazelton, Guards at the Taj is a brutal exploration of the nature of beauty, the bonds of friendship, and how power and greed affect them. Humayun is definitely Type A: responsible and serious, he unquestionably follows the orders he is given. Meanwhile, Babur is a dreamer: running late and always unorganized, he questions everything and has a new idea every minute. Although they both face the same horrible task, their reactions to it are vastly different, yet their friendship guides them. Despite a literal river of blood, the banter between Humayun and Babur is mostly funny, sometimes poignant, then — quite suddenly — heart-breaking. Though neither seems necessarily right or wrong, it's impossible not to compare yourself to them and wonder how you would behave in the same circumstances.
Sultani, who makes his Rep debut, and Azeem, who was last seen in The Rep's production of The Invisible Hand, are mesmerizing; they draw you into their world from the first moment you meet them, and they will leave you with dozens of questions when they're done with you. The overall design of the play (Set by Scott Davis, Costumes by Alison Siple, Lighting by Noele Stollmack, and Sound by Barry G. Funderburg) is ingenious, and the most complex I've seen at The Rep's intimate Stiemke Studio. Interestingly, though the overall design takes you to Agra in 1648, the language of the play is quite modern (swearing and all), and yet it works. Thought-provoking and brave, Guards at the Taj is a worthy addition the The Rep's 65th season.
Guards at the Taj runs through November 4, 2018 in the Stiemke Studio, located within the Patty & Jay Baker Theater Complex at 108 E. Wells St. in Milwaukee. Tickets can be purchased by calling (414) 224-9490, in-person at the Box Office, or online at www.MilwaukeeRep.com.
About Milwaukee Repertory Theater
The Milwaukee Rep is the largest performing arts organization in Wisconsin, in terms of audiences served, and one of the largest professional theaters in the country. Each year, The Rep welcomes up to 275,000 people at nearly 700 performances of 15 productions, ranging from compelling dramas, powerful classics, new plays, and full-scale musicals in its three unique performance venues: the Quadracci Powerhouse, Stiemke Studio, and Stackner Cabaret. Now in its 65th Season, The Rep has gained a national reputation as an incubator of new work, an agent of community change, and a forward-thinking provider of .vital arts education programs. Under the leadership of Artistic Director Mark Clements and Executive Director Chad Bauman, Milwaukee Repertory Theater ignites positive change in the cultural, social, and economic vitality of its community by creating world-class theater experiences that entertain, provoke, and inspire meaningful dialogue among an audience representative of Milwaukee's rich diversity.