Amy Morton, the legendary Steppenwolf Ensemble member known for her work as both actor and director, brings her staging of Rajiv Joseph’s off-Broadway smash hit to Chicago, complete with original cast members Arian Moayed and Omar Metwally. It is a thrilling and important piece that feels right at home in Steppenwolf’s Upstairs Theatre, and is sure to be a summer hit for the famed Chicago troupe.
Guards at the Taj is a superb two-hander; Joseph’s writing lends itself to the kind of unspooling dialogue needed to drive a play with so few actors. Much like last year’s Pass Over, the delights of such a show come from characterization and the development of a single relationship. Here Moayed and Metwally are pitch perfect from the top—a duo that works so well together and against one another that you understand the dynamic before either one even utters a word. That’s not to say there aren’t surprises to be had; just when we think we’ve fully figured these two out, the play pivots, and shows us that it still has some nasty tricks up its sleeve.
It’s unfair to give too much away here—the brilliance of this piece lies in experiencing the movements of the story, particularly early on. The setup is simple: two lowly grunts in 17th century India are stationed at the Taj Mahal’s gates on the morning of its unveiling and given only one instruction—don’t look. From here Joseph devises a philosophical sitcom that is touching and terrifying in a distinctly modern style, shifting from the sublime to the hellish with razor-sharp precision. If you can stomach it, avoid reading the program’s trigger warnings. It’s best to be taken for the ride without knowing too much of what’s in store.
Guards at the Taj arrives at a moment, perhaps 20 minutes in, that is built with such beautiful climax, such trust in the audience and the given circumstances of the world presented that it’s worth the price of a ticket simply to witness these artists working in such top form. Tim Mackabee’s textural set and David Weiner’s kaleidoscopic lighting melt into one another, supporting stunning performances from our two leads, all crescendoing and then nose-diving into a truly stunning work of theatrical craftsmanship. This is a deliciously funny and fearlessly savage play that feels particularly ripe given our cultural state of affairs. It asks its audience to stare art in the face and reconcile the price of beauty in an unforgiving world. It is a daring and provocative manifesto that traffics in horror and suffering as much as it does humor and compassion; in other words, it’s pretty damn human.
Guards at the Taj runs 90 minutes and is presented without an intermission. Performances are Tuesday-Sunday at Steppenwolf Theatre Company, 1650 N. Halsted, through July 22. Tickets are $20-$94.
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