Los Angeles Theater Review: GUARDS AT THE TAJ (Geffen Playhouse)

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by Tony Frankel on October 22, 2015

in Theater-Los Angeles


Rajiv Joseph’s surprisingly complex and touching two-hander concerns a couple of guards assigned to stand watch at the walls in front of the newly built Taj Mahal, which will be revealed to the public for the first time since construction began 16 years earlier. Babur and Humayun, who have yet to espy the white marble mausoleum, may be called Imperial Guards in 1648 Agra, but they are practically plebeians with swords, subject to harsh punishment for even speaking. So they stand like the Queen’s Guard at Buckingham Palace. Or, rather, they’re supposed to. The boyishly irreverent Babur shows up late to his post and continually provokes his lifelong friend (they call themselves “brothers”) with questions, musings, and downright seditious statements.

Ramiz Monsef and Raffi Barsoumian in GUARDS AT THE TAJ. Photo by Michael Lamont.

Humayun, whose father is the “Chief Top Boss Man of the Imperial Guard,” wants to do right but is easily engaged by Babur and finds himself discussing, arguing, and waxing philosophical about subjects as wide-ranging as Taj Mahal architect Ustad Isa, birds’ names, and what it would be like guarding the harem. Courtesy of the design trifecta of Tom Buderwitz (set), Lap Chi Chu (lights), and Vincent Olivieri (sound and original music), our protagonists continue their existential banter—both delightful and haunting in the vein of Beckett’s Waiting for Godot—at a guard post in front of a pre-dawn starry sky, inside an underground chamber akin to hell (a scene not for the squeamish, thanks to Violence Designer Ned Mochel), and in a tree within a lush jungle.

Raffi Barsoumian and Ramiz Monsef in GUARDS AT THE TAJ. Photo by Michael Lamont.

Using anachronistic language, Joseph creates a highly original work, even as it smacks of Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. This humorous and thought-provoking play is laudable in many ways. And while I recommend it, I only wish—this being my sixth Joseph play—that the writer of Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo would 1) create a work that doesn’t just go to the edge but over it and 2) had the intelligence of Stoppard. Still, this is Joseph’s best work yet, and to find myself choked up and engaged in the theater is a rare treat. Director Giovanna Sardelli finds innumerable moments of comedy and character-driven pathos not in the script; she lets the work breathe and idle, which makes Joseph’s circuitous circuitry easier to digest. Raffi Barsoumian as the doctrinaire Humayun and Ramiz Monsef as the more nonchalant Babur pick up each other’s cues as if they are truly comrades, compatriots, and companions, beautifully elucidating that underneath Joseph’s repartee is a love story.

Raffi Barsoumian and Ramiz Monsef in GUARDS AT THE TAJ - Photo by Michael Lamont.

photos by Michael Lamont

Guards at the Taj
Audrey Skirball Kenis Theater at the Geffen Playhouse
10866 Le Conte Avenue in Westwood
Tues-Fri at 8; Sat at 3 & 8; Sun at 2 & 7
ends on November 15, 2015
for tickets, call 310.208.5454 or visit Geffen Playhouse

{ 1 comment }

Kerry English October 26, 2015 at 6:38 pm

Wonderful to be on the same page with you. Olga was not interested in a play that night and we were both amazed and moved. We saw the second preview just before leaving for Andalusia — missing the mod Shakes next door and quite a few other things. For whatever reason I have seldom been more driven to see a play. I certainly wish more of my instincts were so richly rewarded. So does Olga, to be sure.

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