It was a curious experience to visit the Milwaukee Rep and take in the vibrant hope of In the Heights, then return less than a week later to see the opening of Pulitzer Prize finalist Rajiv Joseph’s Guards at the Taj. While not without optimism or humor, where Heights sees the potential in community, Taj turns a gimlet eye to our social constructs, the human inclination to sacrifice others, and even one’s own soul, for a slightly better slice of the human survival needs pie.
I first saw Taj at the Steppenwolf this summer and was captivated by its tightrope balance between allegory and character study. It was also the first time I witnessed fellow audience members walking out mid-performance (without spoiling the effect too much: when the lights come up on the second scene, the scenic design is not for the faint of heart). The Rep’s production continues that thoughtful balancing act, primarily through the deft performances of Owa’Aìs Azeem as Babur and Yousof Sultani as Hamayun. Because of the space the text occupies, it would be easy to lose the smaller, more human moments in between the deep black comedy–though the performers do seem to be having a wonderful, terrible time slipping and sliding around in fake bloody water in a prolonged scene of horrific slapstick–but Azeem grounds dreamer and philosopher Babur in several quieter moments focused on his and Hamayun’s friendship. Similarly, Sultani keeps Hamayun from being too dour or dreadful by occasionally allowing a genuine smile nervously play across his face; his Hamayun is not entirely born to a bureaucrat’s frame of mind and his friendship with Babur seems like one built more on similarities and differences.
But the differences are ultimately what tear at the seams of the two friends and their existence in the shadow of the newly constructed Taj Mahal. Not yet a known wonder of the world, it provides Babur and Hamayun their employment as guards, then as laborers who are charged with taking 20,000 sets of hands from the laborers and slaves who constructed the Taj Mahal to fulfill a decree that nothing as beautiful as the Taj Mahal ever be constructed again. The audience only feels a hint of what Babur and Hamayun see at the end of the first scene as they defy orders and turn to behold the completed building in dawn’s first light, but the set and lighting design, by Scott Davis and Noele Stollmack respectively, is both evocative and clever, and is equally compelling when leveraged in flashbacks to another construction site, Babur and Hamayun’s fondly remembered platform in the trees, away from their army compatriots and closer to Hamayun’s beloved birds (brought to life by Barry G. Funderberg, along with the haunting and faint sounds of agony that lead to the introduction of the second scene).
The performance clips along at a lean 1 hour and 15 minutes–approximately 5 minutes less than the Steppenwolf production I saw, the cuts seemingly impacting the pacing of the cleaning scene–but is dense with thoughts: about the inventors and creators and the despots who walk amongst us; about the impermanence of life and the resonant echoes of terrible cruelty and tragedy that last generations; and about whether or not you could create a transportable hole and carry it in a sack with another transportable hole–and while not stacked with Lin-Manuel Miranda songs, it’s an engrossing and well-performed piece that will stick with you long after the sound of flapping wings fades.
Guards at the Taj runs September 26 –November 4, 2018 in the Stiemke Studio. Purchase tickets at www.MilwaukeeRep.com, by calling the Ticket Office at 414-224-9490, or in person at 108 E. Wells Streetin downtown Milwaukee.