Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

July 9, 2023

Review: Chester Theater, "Guards at the Taj"

Town Hall Theater, Chester, MA
through July 16, 2023
by C. L. Blacke

Guards at the Taj is the exploration of a horrific and bloody legend surrounding the completion of the Taj Mahal in 1648 India that raises the philosophical and ethical complexities about what beauty is and what human price is paid trying to achieve it. The play is much more than that. It is a compelling story of what director Reena Dutt describes as “brotherhood, loyalty, honor, and dreams that unravel on stage.” It is also must-see theatre.

Photo by Andrew Greta
Written by Rajiv Joseph with a mixture of contemporary speech and traditional Indian
language, Guards was the 2016 Lortel Winner for Best Play and won the Obie Award for Best New American play in the same year. The playwright perfectly paces moments of laugh-out-loud humor against quiet moments of despair and explosions of anger.

Equity actors Abuzar Farrukh (Babur) and Ruchir Khazanchi (Humayun) portray low-level imperial guards, who are tasked with the impossible duty of guarding the Taj Mahal without looking at it. Babur, like an overactive, annoying little brother, is full of big dreams and wild inventions. His energy is so contagious that even Humayan, the serious, rigid, curmudgeon-like best friend, can’t resist trading jokes and gossip for long. Despite their jovial camaraderie, the dark heart of the play slowly unfolds, and their friendship is cruelly tested.

Farrukh’s depth and breadth of emotion is stellar. From his bawdy antics with a twinkle of innocent wonder to his tortured writhing onstage, he is never more committed to his role than in Babur’s guilt-ridden anguish over the atrocities he was forced to commit.

It is also in this scene—when Humayan tenderly washes Babur’s bloody face, humming an achingly eerie song—where Khazanchi’s finest moment is captured, and the audience witnesses the true meaning of brotherhood.

With the re-configuration of a sandstone wall, designed by Travis George, the guard post and prison are wholly atmospheric. Naveen Bhatia’s sound design is heard in the call of jungle birds and the haunting cries of torture between scenes, and James McNamara’s subtle use of pale, shifting light mimics the approaching dawn just as beautifully as the smoky haze of fire casts the prison in the color of blood.

Uniting all the elements of must-see theatre, the director makes the story of an ancient, distant people relevant to our modern society by expressing a range of human experience and emotion through ordinary men.