Steppenwolf's latest production follows in the footsteps of many of theirs in that the audience is left completely polarized. The original actors (Omar Metwally and Arian Moayed) and director (Amy Morton) have reunited from the 2015 production of Rajiv Joseph's Off-Broadway play which went on to win the Obie Award for Best New American Play. If you can handle bouncing back and forth between gut-wrenching violence and buddy-comedy humor, Guards at the Taj may be the perfect fit for you.
The setting is Agra, India in 1648 - but Joseph's text is furiously modern. The two characters are Imperial Guards tasked with standing outside of the Taj Mahal the evening before it would be revealed to the world. They are not allowed to speak (but they do) nor are they, or anyone else, allowed to look at the building prior to its unveiling. Though the opening moments are a bit heavy with exposition, it feels worthy due to the setting's historical nature and our country's willingness to ignore any history that doesn't directly pertain to ourselves.
To share more about the plot would be a disservice, as the tonal and scenic shifts are very surprising. Metwally and Moayed both give powerhouse performances, displaying shocking endurance that truly proves just how physically demanding performing can be. Matt Hawkins' fight choreography, as always, is stunning and realistic. The violence design is complimented by stellar lighting by David Weiner and original music by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen. The star of the show, however, is Tim Mackabee's scenic design. What starts so beautifully subtle becomes a real life nightmare. There aren't words to describe it - you'll have to see for yourself.
Though the performance runs 80 minutes without intermission, it is not a brisk experience due to the heaviness of what is happening on stage. I felt mentally drained as I exited the theatre, and the audience was largely silent leaving their seats. That's an amazing indication of a theatrical experience truly challenging someone, and I found myself needing longer than usual to organize my thoughts into a review.
Guards at the Taj is a perfect production for Steppenwolf Theatre, and Amy Morton's stellar direction of Rajiv Joseph's text is a match made in theatrical heaven. Thanks to an excellent two-man acting team and wonderful design, this is not a production you will shake off any time soon.
Review by Jason Berger
Guards at the Taj continues at Steppenwolf Theater through July 22. More info here.
The Hawk Chicago is included in TheatreInChicago's Review Round-Up.
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