“Guards at the Taj” looks at both beauty and duty

Owa’Ais Azeem and Yousof Sultani star in “Guards at the Taj” Photo by Michael Brosilow

It is only with intelligent and perceptive direction that the truth of “Guards At The Taj” can speak plainly to an audience.

It would be easy to get wrapped up in the humor or the horror of the play, currently running at the Stiemke Studio at The Rep. It would be easy to think this is a play about what makes something beautiful and how important is it to daily life.

But under the maestro touch of Brent Hazelton, what we see on this stage is a piercing examination of the concept of duty – duty to others, duty to family and friends, duty to a cause and, ultimately, duty to yourself.

It’s the mid 1600’s and the magnificent Taj Mahal has just been completed – the most beautiful thing on earth. Humayun (Yousof Sultani) and Babur (Owa’Ais Azeem) are two lowly guards, assigned to the dawn shift guarding the palace. They must stand still, not talk and certainly not turn to look at the building.

Rajiv Joseph’s play breaks the plane of duty quickly with a brotherly banter between the two guards, Humayan intent on obedience to the orders, Babur equally intent on disregarding orders in order to indulge his flights of fancy.

The play starts funny, very funny, and Mr. Hazelton has given his two actors an incredible box of tools to work with and each actor  takes full advantage. They quickly draw portraits of who each man is and how abundant their relationship with each other is.

They may be the bottom of the totem pole, but they suffer each other graciously and find both love and delight in their brotherhood.

One of the most charming and mesmerizing parts of this play are the silences. Long and drawn out, Mr. Hazelton lets the silence breathe and even talk to the audience. They are enraptured.

The 85 minutes from places to curtain are a long and tortured slide from the funny guys to two men wracked with pains, both real and imagined. Mr. Hazelton manages this slide with patience and Azeem and Sultani let those silences ride on the wings of both fantasy mixed with harsh reality.

These two actors are scintillating in their passions and powers. Each draws a precise picture of men who enjoy abundant similarity while sharing a wonder at their differences.

This is a powerful play, full of surprise (which I’m reluctant to reveal). As the disillusion grows in a variety of directions for each character, there is an audience sympathy that mixes with the gnarl of painful repulsion.

I have enjoyed Mr. Hazelton’s work for a long time,and his continued growth as a director of amazing talents has been a joy to watch.

About a decade ago, when there was still a foolish thought that I might be an actor, I did a play at Windfall directed by Mr. Hazelton. One rehearsal we spent half an hour talking about a toothpick I used as a minor prop. Half an  hour about a toothpick.

It is that kind of attention to detail that makes him such a power heading a production. He is more than ably assisted here by brilliant scenic design by Scott Davis, evocative lighting by Noele Stollmack, a vibrant sound design by Barry G. Funderburg and creative scenic design by Scott Davis.

That team has combined efforts to create an evening of troubling theater, the kind of thing that makes you smile before it slams into you, demanding that you think about what you just saw on the stage.

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About davebegel@gmail.com

Theater Critic in Milwaukee.
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