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La Jolla Playhouse’s ‘Guards At The Taj’ Is One Bloody Funny Comedy

Reported by Katie Schoolov

Photo credit: La Jolla Playhouse

From left to right: Manu Narayan, who plays the straight-laced guard Humayun, and Babak Tafti, who plays Babur, in La Jolla Playhouse's production "Guards at the Taj" are pictured in this undated photo.

Despite all the blood, "Guards at the Taj" is a comedy. The show runs through Feb. 28 at the La Jolla Playhouse.

It's the night before the unveiling of the Taj Mahal and two guards hired to protect the monument sure could use a labor union.

They have to carry out Emperor Shah Jahan's decree to behand all the masons and builders who spent years building the famous mausoleum.

The grisly legend inspired Pulitzer Prize finalist Rajiv Joseph to write "Guards at the Taj," a dark comedy about two well-meaning guards who are forced, because of their class status in 1648 India, to do the unthinkable act.

"And in our story, 20,000 men are behanded, magically in one bloody, gory scene," said Jaime Castañeda, the director of the La Jolla Playhouse's new production of "Guards at the Taj."

Close to 1,000 gallons of fake blood will be used during the show's run through Feb. 28. Not sure how many fake hands are employed. There's at least one basketful.

"The blood feels like another character because it’s something that informs so much of what we do," said actor Manu Narayan, who plays straight-laced guard Humayun.

Narayan is joined on stage by Babak Tafti, who plays Babur, a wide-eyed dreamer who both entertains and frustrates Humayun.

"In many ways I describe this play as a bromance," Jaime Castañeda said. "It’s set in 1648, but it’s actually a contemporary play. They talk with everyday language."

The modern, casual dialogue mixed with gruesome violence has the team thinking about the films of Quentin Tarantino. Castañeda and both actors recently saw Tarantino's "The Hateful Eight."

After seeing the film, Tafti and Narayan talked about the scene in Tarantino's "Pulp Fiction" in which John Travolta and Samuel L. Jackson clean up bloody car seats in a Cadillac.

"There’s literally brains on the seats, and they’re having the most casual talk," Tafti said.

The two actors have similar stretches of dialogue in which they're cleaning up the aftermath of the behandings.

Tafti said playwright Rajiv Joseph’s dialogue is similar in its pacing and tone to Tarantino's, as well as to Irish playwright Martin McDonagh, who's had his own fascination with a behanding. "[Joseph] does this musical kind of talk, a kind of Laurel and Hardy, 'Waiting for Godot' kind of back and forth," Tafti said. "It has this wonderful rhythm and humor to it."

Castañeda said the legend about the behandings has been passed down through generations. Supposedly, the emperor wanted to make sure the workers could never build anything as beautiful as the Taj Mahal again.

He worked with the Playhouse prop team developing 20 different recipes to get the right blood color and consistency.

"Every week there’s a blood meeting," Castañeda said. "I’m like the president of the United States, I get a kind of blood debrief at the top of my morning."

In a bunker-like room below the stage, in what Castañeda said looks like a set from "Breaking Bad," three large tanks hold the fake blood, which is shot up to the stage through a hose. The blood is actually heated since the actors get it all over their hands, faces and costumes.

This is the first show Castañeda is directing for the Playhouse since being named associate artistic director. It’s a bold choice, but one he’s proud of.

"It's really, really funny. It’s also really dark and quite absurd," Castañeda said.

He also clearly loves the challenge.

"It’s one of the things that excited me about the play is that it puts an impossible, magical task on stage. And when theater can accomplish those moments, that’s when theater is at its most exciting."

"Guards at the Taj" runs through Feb. 28 at the La Jolla Playhouse.

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