By Beki Pineda

GUARDS AT THE TAJ – Written by Rajiv Joseph; Directed by Stephen Weitz.  Produced by Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company (Dairy Arts Center, 2590 Walnut) through February 18, 2018.  Tickets available at 303-444-7328 or thedairy.org.

The first thing we have to resolve is that this is a work of fiction.  There is no proof that the long standing myth depicted in this script ever happened.  So it becomes a metaphor – an act of violence that stands in for other acts of violence perpetrated in the name of country or religion or power.  Because of my generation, Viet Nam kept coming to mind.  How young men were ordered into the jungle to do horrific acts in the name of preserving peace.  Or, previously, how Nazi German soldiers excused themselves by proclaiming “I was only following orders.”

The two soldiers – one experienced, one new – whose job is to guard the Main Gate of the Taj Mahal before it was opened, squabble over the tardiness of the new guard, his constant babble when they are supposed to be silent, his desire to look at the Taj when they are ordered to only guard.  Their conversation reveals a closeness, a brotherhood between younger and older siblings, an understanding friendship, a true humanity and desire to succeed.  They are simple men who take pleasure in the song of a bird, the canopy of stars they stand under, their dreams for a better future, the hope to one day guard the harem.

This all changes when they are given a different set of orders that forever alters their perspective.  They were proud of being soldiers and of fulfilling their duty.  But there is neither nobility nor dignity in what they are asked to do.  If you ever thought PTSD was not a real disability, this performance will give you insight into how the acts of war can continue to haunt.  Both men must use their friendship to get through the night.

Act Two reveals the after effects of their soul crushing ordeal.  Rebellion and a heart-broken acceptance war between them.  They are revealed as being as helpless to control their lives as the men they have brutalized.  How does one come back from that?  And yet their bone-deep humanity allow them to still appreciate a sunrise, a bird song, each other.

The actors – Sam Gilstrap and Jihad Milhem – not only look the parts but bring a personal strength and depth to these difficult and penetrating roles.  It is physically and psychically demanding to go through this night after night.  Kudos to both for their ability to immerse themselves in this world and to draw the audience in with them.

As always, the BETC technical team delivers.  The sound design by Daniel Horney provides a subtle backdrop to their world – good and bad.  Jacob Welch’s lighting design illuminates their sunrise viewing of the Taj for the first time and brings the outside world into their simple cell.  Ron Mueller’s two-set design creates an over-wielding world in which they are but a small part. The giant walls allow them only very limited space in which to move.

You have only one weekend left to catch this powerful piece.  Run – don’t walk!

A WOW factor of 9!