All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Jaunty, naturalistic acting, scattered bon mots, sporadic moments of amusement, occasional keen observations, and blatant instances of tense drama cannot save Rajiv Joseph’s “Guards at the Taj” from a typical case of the 21st-centuryitis that plagues so many new plays.
Joseph, using comedy and the casual conversations of friends since boyhood, makes clear the caprices of despotism, the need to go along with a program to preserve life and limb, the burden of following orders, and the sentiment has is part of friendship so deep it borders on love and even, in “Guards” on homoeroticism, but he does all so baldly and so plainly, there’s no texture or genuine theatrical weight. Matters don’t build as much as they escalate to a point, usually obvious by the time it is reached. Having and stating an idea is equated with building a theme or having a story unravel in a way reveals layers and emotions.
“Guards at the Taj” is direct. It says what it needs to say outright. There’s no subtlety or cleverness. It doesn’t present. It declares. You get everything Joseph intends you to get — that an almighty ruler can be whimsical about his tastes, decrees, and commands, that anyone under the rule of should an emperor is subject to cruel and all-too-usual punishment, that orthodox adherence to a system is the safest way, that difference or, heaven forfend, individualism is frowned upon, and that sacrifices might have to be made to insure the continuation of life on such eccentric terms. I, who worry about what I serially label the new Puritanism, Inquisition, or McCarthyism practiced by the self-appointed politically correct, see the parallels in the 1648 Agra (India) in which “Guards” take place and some of the influences and pressures of today, find “Guards” shallow in its introduction and explication of such subjects. Cut-and-dried is the way of the new playwright. Something is said, and that’s enough. Like it or lump it.
But proffering an idea or openly blurting something of interest is not theater. Or good storytelling. It’s barely good journalism. Joseph’s characters, and Deborah Block’s adorable and personable actors at Theatre Exile, are glib and boyish as they chat away, one trying to be stern and by the book, the other incorrigibly undisciplined in duty, tone, and behavior, but cuteness and random humor are not enough.
Joseph’s style is expose all via conversations between two soldiers, who are charged with guarding the south wall of the emerging Taj Mahal, the side without a view of the wondrous structure, and we hear and learn a lot. The problem is even when we hear something juicy, horrifying, or angering, it registers only as talk. Even when we see the results of a despot’s impulsive fancy, it plays more like a vignette at a Halloween harum-scarum event than as anything deep, provocative, or sobering. Joseph has notions to express, information to give, and even some commentary on what he throws at us, but he strains to fill the scant intermissionless 90 minutes “Guards at the Taj” takes to unfold.
And isn’t that the way of the theatrical world today? New play after new plays, it’s one idea and one conclusion from it beaten into a hash that can be served a variety of ways until that magic 90 minute mark is hit. Anyone not named Richard Greenberg, Rachel Bonds, or Gina Gionfriddo, gives one pause as they enter what should be the giddy world of the newly minted. Oh, yes, local playwright Bruce Graham fits into the good group because he crafts the well-made and wraps his ideas in the way people speak and live. (Stephen Karams has a great breakthrough to art with “The Humans.”)
I grant that Joseph, in this sporty byplay between the friends in arms, Humayun and Babur, captures how dudes speak among themselves today, and possibly in 1648, give or take contemporary vocabulary and body language, but the maundering chatter, spiritedly as presented by Anthony Mustafa Adair and Jenson Titus Lavallee, merely passes time. It doesn’t entertain for long, and it becomes more boring instead of more engaging as “Guards” wends along. You are a party to a conversation that might amuse for a few seconds but that you’d tune out of it you overheard it at Starbucks.
Give Deborah Block, Adair, and Lavallee credit for trying to keep the tone so friendly and upbeat, you get caught up in the actors’ energy, and sweetness. They try hard to give life to the inane and off-the-cuff dialogue Joseph mostly provides. Talk about a harem, funny at first when you realize Adair and Lavallee are playing sheltered lads who may yet be teenaged, gets tedious when it goes too long. Even Humayun’s admiration of the emperor and fear of his powerful father, a captain of the guard unit to which Humayun and Babar are assigned, and Babur’s agreeably puerile talk about the Taj Mahal’s architect, “the smartest man in the world.” or imaginative inventions, including an airplane, wear out quickly as topics, charming as they promise to be when broached. It’s not the reality of “Guards at the Taj” that suffers, it’s it lack of depth and failure to move absorbingly from one thought to another. Perhaps because Joseph is so stingy with his number of thoughts.
By intellectualizing, I can imagine places “Guards at the Taj” could lead, but Joseph doesn’t take us to any of those places without our making an extrapolating effort. For instance, Humayun and Babur live in a fairly, enclosed hermetic world. They talk about other places. Heck, Babur envisions a rocket that can soar to the stars and longs one day to visit Turkey. But their immediate environment is all they know. Living in India, and ruled by a powerful inheritor of the Mughal dynasty, they believe their emperor is the mightiest and most feared on Earth and that he has all the power. They are unaware of Charles I in England, Oliver Cromwell who will take Charles’s place in a year, or Louis XIII and his musketeers in France. Their world is insular and all-important. In that way, you could draw cognates to Middle Eastern youth who are indoctrinated in a singular way of thinking, especially about the West, or any child of a strict culture who faces penalties from ostracism to death for disobedience.
Joseph also has Babur in particular talk about beauty, its fragility, and the critical condition in which it might be. In these passages, he is the one intellectualizing, and his thoughts and ideas are not as pregnant with meaning or sadness as he thinks they are. In fact, they seem shallow and fatuous, more to weakly provoke a discussion that say anything wise or real or do any more than have Babur mouth them.
“Guards at the Taj” made me think of these things, but Joseph doesn’t put them significantly on stage.
One context he attempted to use, and that would have provided dividends, is the closeness of Humayun and Babur’s friendship, spoken about plainly by both men and illustrated in the closing scene, which is a flashback to a time before one of the friends had to betray and mutilate another. Perhaps more such flashbacks, of Humayun and Babur as children, would have given “Guards at the Taj” more heft. Especially when you see how ingenious, talented, and affectionate (in a Platonic way that suggests more) they are.
Friendship and the give and take within it are broached in “Guards at the Taj,” Scenes involving them register the deepest. Especially when you question how necessary an intended act of friendship is in the long run.
Deborah Block, as director, tries to give some texture to Joseph’s play. She does it by allowing animation another director might eschew. For instance, Humayun and Babur are supposed to stand still and silent, like the soldiers guarding the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier or the guard at Whitehall, during their watch. Humayun, dressed to precision and knowing his job, is inclined to do just that. Babur is more lax. His sash, once he gets it tied, is not as crisp or perfectly place as Humayun’s. He can’t help bursting into conversation and saying some things Humayun finds so outrageous, he warms Babur about being charged with sedition or blasphemy, crimes with severe punishments, the results of committing blasphemy being far less odious and being caught uttering the seditious.
In some productions, you can envision the guards standing stock still and Babur violating protocol only by chattering. Constantly. (He asks at one point, “When do I ever shut up?,” a question I’ve been known to ask myself.) Humayun is petrified that if elders — senior guards or officials, such as his father — see the guys moving, they will demote them or, worse, imprison or hang them. Block has Adair and Lavallee move constantly. They are always away from their position and even have the temerity to turn, against strict orders, to see the Taj Mahal as it is opened at dawn on the first day the public can see it. By doing this, she makes you wonder if anyone is watching Humayun or Babur too closely. If someone is, why aren’t they reprimanded? Could Joseph be saying that many of our fears about despotism are in vain because no is paying attention? Not overtly. But I like that Block’s staging made me think of that.
Especially because it that is true, that no one is really paying heed to how Humayun and Babur are behaving at their watch, then anything they do or say is moot, and the worst that happens — to them — in “Guards at the Taj” is avoidable, only to be known if someone does or says something rash. That would add a gruesome cast to the play.
Anthony Mustafa Adair and Jenson Titus Lavallee are not to be blamed that “Guards at the Taj” accomplishes so little. Besides being individually and mutually darling, they look and sound like goots joshing and larking about. You see their closeness and sense their intimacy, which is twice subtly illustrated in Block’s production, once when the two are comforting each order after carrying out orders to execute a heinous deed and once when they are content their cleverness saved them from tigers and snakes when they are stranded in the jungle.
Adair, in three local performances of different stripes, nicely illustrates how Humayun’s yen to be the perfect soldier and subject to the emperor are frustrated by Babur’s boisterousness. You believe Adair at critical moments when duty must be carried out in spite of any other factors that might be in play.
Lavallee is wonderful as the scamp who cannot contain his impulses, his imagination, or his mouth.
For all of Joseph’s shallowness, Adair and Lavallee provide insight into their individual characters. You like and want the best for Humaun and Babur even as you realize their lives and fates will never be their own. It’s a shame the gregarious performances could save a play that remains too simple and is simply never enough.
Alison Roberts’s costumes for “Guards” find the right balance between properly ceremonial and comic. The everyday clothes she provides for Humayun and Babur are equally precise.
Set designer Colin McIlvaine provides great opportunities for lighting designer Drew Billiau as the burnished ochre walls in front of which Humayun and Babur stand capture and reflect light and mood. Billiau’s use of lights to show the dazzle the guards get from their view first surreptitious view of Taj Mahal might be the smartest moment of the evening.
“Guards at the Taj” runs through Sunday, November 13, at Theatre Exile’s Studio X. 13th and Reed Streets, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Wednesday, Friday, and Saturday, 7 p.m. Thursday, and 5 p.m. Sunday. An extra performance is scheduled for 8 p.m. Monday, November 7. Tickets are $35 and can be obtained by calling 215-218-4022 or by visiting www.theatreexile.org.