Arts theater review

The most beautiful thing in the world

An awe-inspiring production that will ensnare your heart and steal your breath

Guards at The Taj
Written by Rajiv Joseph
Directed by Gabriel Vega Weissman
Central Square Theater
March 1 – April 1

Horrific, touching, and deeply beautiful, Weissman’s production brings to life Rajiv Joseph’s play with such wonderful magic that it will mesmerize you from start to finish. Many times throughout the play have I anxiously found myself on the edge of my seat, anticipating some sort of relief from the tension. Other times, I felt my jaw plummet, agape out of the horror that Weissman has executed so eloquently. In other words, this is a spectacular work of art.

Guards at The Taj paints us a scene of India during 1648. The Taj Mahal, an immaculate tomb for Shah’s wife, is nearing completion. Tasked with guarding their portion of the wall that surrounds the Taj, Humayun (Jacob Athyal) and Babur (Harsh J. Gagoomal) whittle away at the hours with meaningless talk. They are stuck at the absolute bottom of the food chain, looking for some upward movement.

In what is so clearly a callback to Waiting for Godot, the duo talk about anything and everything, even if it’s just about the concept of beauty. Although there aren’t any extreme scene changes or fight scenes happening on stage, the chemistry that the two guards have is undeniably touching and heartwarming. They’ll complain about their lots in life, or Humayun would listen to Babur rattle off about the dreams he had. Instantaneously, you develop a close connection with these characters. Both Athyal and Gagoomal do an impeccable job fleshing out their roles, sparking life into the production.

I can solidly say that their 30 minutes of talking were more entertaining than fight scenes in other plays. I smiled. I laughed. I almost fell out of my seat. It was as though I was reliving my childhood through Humayun and Babur’s friendship. Then, Babur questions why they’ve stood for so long in front of the Taj without ever looking behind them. Defying Humayun’s warnings, he turns around. The theater felt magical in that one second, glowing with the light of the dawn that wasn’t quite there but it didn’t matter. Reluctant, Humayun turns around to face the dawn, shoulder-to-shoulder with his brother.

But new dawns cast new shadows. The people who built the Taj, under the orders of the Shah, must have their hands removed. And the people to do so? Humayun and Babur. Any pretense that Guards at The Taj had of being peaceful gets thrown out of the window. It quickly becomes a deeply philosophical play. Every second, you are plagued with an unspeakable despair. For a play to even broach that territory is a feat. Both Gagoomal and Athyal must be commended for reflecting this subtle change so precisely that it’s unbelievable that they could play such extremes in personalities.

Two-actor productions are notoriously difficult to pull off well, if at all. I came into the theater with low expectations, but Guards at the Taj exceeded my expectations so many times over. The world changed when I walked out of that theater. Perhaps it was me? As director Weissman puts it, “Rajiv’s beautifully eviscerating play is proof of the importance of human connection.”

Indeed, I felt just a tiny bit closer to the world. Celestial luminary that it is, Guards at the Taj will break your world and put it back together again. If not for the amazing acting and stagecraft, then watch it for its glorious beating heart.