BETC’s Guards at the Taj: A Haunting Production of Transformation and Friendship
Gabrielle DeCristofaro • February 14, 2018 • Art •
Presented by the Boulder Ensemble Theater Company (BETC), Guards at the Taj is a moving story about friendship, class differences, doing what’s hard but also right, and the love of beauty. Performed in the Grace Gamm Theater at the Dairy Center for the Arts, this performance will make you laugh, but then move you into the dark spaces of humanity through jarring imagery and the visualization of the lust for power.
Written by Raviv Joseph, Guards at the Taj won the 2016 Obie Award for Best New Play. Further, Joseph was a 2010 Pulitzer finalist for his play Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo. In an interview with the Bush Theatre, Joseph explains that his father is from India. In visiting the Taj Mahal with his family he learned about the legends, which inspired this play.
We are introduced to our two characters: Babur (Hihad Milhem) and Humayun (Sam Gilstrap), as they guard the Taj Mahal as it is completed being built in 1684 India. They are to guard it so that no one sees it until first light. Babur and Humayun are more than just Imperial Guards together, they are friends. However, there are some deep differences between the two. Humayun is from a military family and wants to do his job properly so that he can move up in status. Babur, on the other hand, is lighthearted with fanciful ideas. He is a lover of beauty and expresses his ideas for inventions and dreams.
The conflict of the play is presented at the end of this first scene. It is said that Emperor Shah Jahan wants nothing as beautiful as Taj Mahal to ever be built again. What follows is an emotional rollercoaster of duty versus morals, and following traditions versus questioning those in power. Of competition, but also of friendship.
Raviv Joseph’s script flows beautifully and rhythmically through a balancing act between the English language and the sounds of Indian names. Babur’s repetition of the name of the architect, Ustad Isa, leaves us haunted. Adding to the mystical feeling of the play is notation that Babur and Humayun are both named after past emperors of the Mughal Empire.
As always, BETC has perfectly cast this play. However, I believe Milhem and Gilstrap are so skilled, they could have switched roles, and would have been just as well-suited for the opposite parts. Milhem is in total control of his character, Babur, as he is at first so lighthearted, but then becomes so damaged from going against his morals. His range of emotions on stage will pull on your emotions, too. And Gilstrap as Humayun is at once so serious, but you see him both progress as a character and stay stagnant. We root for both of these characters. And while we don’t always agree with them, there are foundations built on redeeming qualities. The play leaves you questioning your own decision-making processes for a better life. Whether through work, or art. Both actors showed their knowledge of the characters and the script through seamless acting and transitions.
In addition to the wonderful acting, the BETC crew has again put on a tight production. Director Stephen Weitz’s vision comes together clearly and smoothly as we go on this journey with Babur and Humayun. Katie Horney’s costume design feels authentic, as does Ron Mueller’s haunting set design. And with so much emphasis on “first light” in this production, Jacob Welch’s lighting design holds our attention, as it actively grasps the attention of our two characters.
Guards at the Taj is playing at The Dairy Center for the Arts from January 25-February 18, so get your ticket now!