Rajiv Joseph’s Guards at the Taj at La Jolla Playhouse articulates the beautiful and the terrible, and does so in a manner that may leave you dazed. While the beautiful is mostly in your imagination, the terrible is blatant in its gruesome aftermath, making this not an evening for the weak of heart or stomach.
The prodigious Joseph crafted the Pulitzer-nominated Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo, most recently seen in San Diego at ion theatre in 2013. Guards at the Taj is a lesser work by comparison, but it does raise wrenching philosophical inquiries about life, death, duty and beauty, and it sure as hell raises the hair on the back of your neck. The hypothetical premise is that two 17th-century guards (Manu Narayan and Babak Tafti) posted outside the yet-unveiled Taj Mahal are subsequently ordered to chop the hands off of all 20,000 workers who built the Taj, thereby ensuring that nothing as magnificent would ever be built afterward. There is no historical documentation marking this as fact, but the mere notion of it is shuddering and Joseph’s one-act play will consume you in its haunted characters and graphic images.
None of this is foreshadowed in the play’s first 15 minutes or so, which finds the two guards breaking their code of silence outside the hidden Taj, riffing and ragging on each other, and inventing fantastical means of travel and transcending space. What happens after the first scene break is a horrifying 180, and frankly, any attempts at quips and riffing from then on are nervous, failed distractions— for the characters and for the audience.
The Playhouse’s associate artistic director, Jaime Castaneda, directs this production, which is uncompromising in its denouncement of tyranny, arrogance and privilege, in and out of historical context. The two guards were ordered to “kill beauty,” in the words of Babur (Tafti), a crime just as heinous as the mutilations they carried out.
Guards at the Taj is at the very least an uncomfortable sit for theatergoers, in spite of bracing performances by both Narayan and Tafti, Thomas Ontiveros’ lighting and Cricket S. Myers’ sound design. Just remember, beauty has its flipside.
Guards at the Taj runs through Feb. 28 at La Jolla Playhouse. $20-$59; lajollaplayhouse.org
La Bête: Performed in rhymed couplets in iambic pentameter, this comedy centers on a 17th century French theater troupe that is forced to perform a play written by a foolish street performer. Written by David Hirson, it opens Feb. 20 at the UCSD Shank Theatre in La Jolla. theatre.ucsd.edu
San Diego, I Love You (I Love You Not): Patrons will travel to multiple locations around Ocean Beach following a couple’s misadventures in this site-specific, choose-your-own-adventure-style romcom. Presented by Circle Circle dot dot, it opens for four performances Feb. 20 starting at Electric Chair Salon in O.B. circle2dot2.com
Three Days of Rain: A staged reading of Richard Greenberg’s drama about two siblings and a childhood friend who meet up after years apart in order to settle their parents’ estate. Presented by Intrepid Theatre Company, it happens Feb. 22 at the Encinitas Library. intrepidtheatre.org
The Book of Mormon: In the acclaimed musical, two Mormon missionaries are sent to Uganda to convert the locals, who are not the slightest bit interested in being converted. Written by the creators of South Park, it opens Feb. 23 at the Civic Theatre in the Gaslamp. broadwaysd.com
Now You See It: Georges Feydeau’s comical farce includes a philandering husband, hypnotism and scandalous discoveries galore. Directed by Bruce Turk, it opens Feb. 24 at the North Coast Repertory Theatre in Solana Beach. northcoastrep.org
WaistWatchers The Musical: A musical parody about four women obsessing over diet, work out regimens, plastic surgery and sex in their search for self-love. Presented by San Diego Repertory Theatre, it opens Feb. 24 at the Lyceum Space Theatre in the Gaslamp. sdrep.org
The Last Five Years: This romantic musical tells the story of a writer and an actress by working backward through their entire relationship through song. Written by Jason Robert Brown, it runs through Feb. 21 at PowPAC Community Theatre in Poway. powpac.org
Movers + Shakers: A new musical play that explores the intricacies of 21st century virtual mating habits via the story of a congressman who’s having to do damage control over a leaked dick pic. Conceived by Stein | Holum Projects, it runs through Feb. 21 at the UCSD Mandell Weiss Forum Theatre in La Jolla. theatre.ucsd.edu
Guards at the Taj: A new black comedy about two Taj Mahal guards whose faith is tested after a ghoulish encounter. Written by Rajiv Joseph, it runs through Feb. 28 at the La Jolla Playhouse. lajollaplayhouse.org
Tell Me on a Sunday: Actress Bets Malone stars in the one-woman, Andrew Lloyd Webber musical about a young Brit looking for love in the U.S. Directed by James Vasquez, it runs through Feb. 28 at the Broadway Theatre in Vista. broadwayvista.biz
Emilie: La Marquise Du Châtelet Defends Her Life Tonight: The San Diego premiere of Lauren Gunderson’s fascinating play about the brilliant Enlightenment physicist and mathematician who never got her due because of her sex. It runs through March 6 at the New Village Arts Theatre in Carlsbad. newvillagearts.org
The Metromaniacs: This new David Ives comedy centers on an 18th Century Parisian poet who falls in love with a famous poetess, not realizing that she is actually a he. Naturally, hilarity ensues. Presented in association with Shakespeare Theatre Company, it runs through March 6 at the Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park. theoldglobe.org
Sugar: Based on the screenplay of Some Like it Hot, this musical is about two unemployed musicians who disguise themselves as women in order to hide from the Chicago mob. Adapted by Peter Stone, it runs through March 6 at the Coronado Playhouse. coronadoplayhouse.com
The Last Match: As the drama of a tennis match between a Russian and an American plays out on the court, the behind-the-scenes drama is just as fast-paced. Written by Anna Zeigler, it runs through March 13 at the Old Globe Theatre in Balboa Park. theoldglobe.org
Now or Later: The west coast premiere of Christopher Shinn’s provocative play about a presidential election that turns all too personal when controversial photos surface of the Democratic candidate’s son. It runs through March 13 at the Diversionary Theatre in Hillcrest. diversionary.org
Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?: Edward Albee’s classic drama about two married couples who meet for drinks and leave forever changed. Presented by the Intrepid Theatre Company, it runs through March 13 at the Horton Grand Theatre in the Gaslamp. intrepidtheatre.org