ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Rajiv Joseph achieved fame with his play “Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo,” which moved to Broadway in 2011 with Robin Williams playing the anthropomorphic tiger. The play dealt with violence, dismemberment and hapless guards, which also feature in his later play, “Guards at the Taj,” which opened off-Broadway in 2015.
“Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo” is set in war-ravaged Iraq after the U.S. invasion in 2003. “Guards at the Taj” is an 85-minute one-act that dramatizes a life-changing experience of two guards assigned to keep watch of the Taj Mahal just before it is to be unveiled in 1643. This gripping dramatization of egomaniacal power and violence unleashed on the lowly is being presented at Vortex Theatre, powerfully directed by Marc Comstock and beautifully acted and designed.
Joseph constructs his play around a myth that Mughal emperor Shah Jahan, who commissioned the Taj Mahal in 1632, dismembered the hands of all the artisans involved in building the mausoleum so that they would be unable to build another monument as beautiful as the Taj Mahal.
As the lights come up on the first of five scenes, Humaayun is stiffly on guard before the Taj Mahal, which is obstructed from view until the unveiling the next day. Babur arrives late, puts his rifle in the wrong position and can’t stop talking, much to the dismay of the punctilious Humaayun, who nonetheless gets drawn into the chatter.
Most of the banter is light and amusing as the two share their dreams and fantasies, but the play moves relentlessly toward the harrowing violence at its core, graphically displayed as the curtain is opened for the second scene, which takes place in a blood-spattered dungeon with a multitude of severed hands littering the small dank room, the two men visibly in a state of shock as a result of their forced involvement in the king’s cruelty.
The play is a study of two very different personalities struggling under an oppressive authoritarian regime. Friends from youth, Humaayun is weak and slightly effeminate while Babur is more aggressive. The one is obedient to a fault, the other impetuous and free-spirited. Their friendship is tested, but the final scene suggests that the one who appears to be destroyed remains free while the one who succumbs to the demands of unjust power, while he may have saved his neck is really the one destroyed.
Comstock has cast the play perfectly. Miguel Martinez is outstanding as the irrepressible Babur (although he could also be the poster child for why actors shouldn’t get tattoos) and Ray Rey Griego his perfect complement as the tractable friend and partner.
Designers Leslee Richards, Rhonda Backinoff and Josh Brown bring the exotic and sanguinary world of 17th century India to vivid life.
I attended with a military veteran friend of mine, and this was the first time I’ve seen him visibly moved at the theater. He was very grateful I invited him to see this show. This might be too bloody and violent for some, but the visceral response it induces is not easily achieved in this jaded world of ours.
“Guards at the Taj” is playing through May 19 at the Vortex, 2900 Carlisle NE, Albuquerque. Go to vortexabq.org or call 247-8600 for reservations.