Credit: Handout photo by Scott Suchman

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The bickering of the empire’s lowliest servants is a subject rich in dramatic provenance, from Kurosawa to Beckett to Stoppard to George Lucas to Kevin Smith. Rajiv Joseph—the American playwright whose 2009 drama A Bengal Tiger at the Baghdad Zoo was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize—is the latest to find inspiration in the canon of cannon fodder, fashioning a haunting and universal fable from a tale of two soldiers whose duties resemble those of innumerable soldiers throughout history: Long stretches of tedium punctuated by a life-altering episode of unfathomable horror.

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As you might infer, the setting for Joseph’s magnificent Guards at the Taj is the Indian city of Agra in the mid-17th century. The Taj Mahal, Emperor Shah Jahan’s grand, ivory-hued mausoleum for his favorite wife, is nearing completion after 16 years of construction. Humayun and Babur aren’t so much watchmen stationed there as they are the least of its architectural features, forbidden even to turn around and steal a glance at the magnificent edifice. Of course, they’re not supposed to speak, either, but they do—in the vulgar patois of 21st-century American English, no less. It’s a testament to the emperor’s unchallenged dominion that he entrusts his security to this pair of bumblers.

Humayun (Ethan Hova), the son of a minor government official, is sufficiently cowed that he would likely obey his orders forever if not for the influence of chatty, immature Babur (Kenneth De Abrew). Babur passes the long hours standing post by imagining fantastic inventions: Cloud Tea, a Transportable Hole, and a machine as bizarre as either of those things that he struggles to describe. We would call it an airplane. When Babur daydreams aloud of being assigned to guard the emperor’s harem, Humayun is quick to pop his balloon: “It’s a government department,” he shrugs.

Pragmatism aside, Humayun and Babur have heard the same legends about the Taj Mahal that we have. There’s no historical evidence that Shah Jahan actually mutilated the thousands who worked on the grand building to prevent them from replicating their creation, for example, but stories like this preserve the social order. If the Indians starving in the provinces ever collectively decided they don’t like suffering so their rulers can live lavishly, there wouldn’t be enough Imperial Guards to kill them all.

It’s this seditious strain of thinking that the idleness of Humayun and Babur’s assignment enables. The refusal of the imagination to lie dormant even when one’s station in life makes no accommodation for it is the animating tragedy of Joseph’s sublime script. Few stories are as sad as when an unwitting prisoner first perceives the bars of his cage. Hova and De Abrew both let us see that gradual awakening, and their struggle to keep their rebellious speculations in check, without ever coming off as maudlin or detached. They’re perfectly calibrated performances.

Director John Vreeke’s design team has wisely taken a minimalist approach to suggesting the presence of one of the world’s most famous buildings. Misha Kachman’s set is largely bare, though the floor opens up into a pit for one grisly interlude. Sound designer Palmer Hefferan and lightning designer Jen Schriever both use subtle tonal effects to keep the emotional palette calm even when the business at hand is dire, making the whole thing feel like a dream.

Six years ago at Woolly, Vreeke staged an earlier Joseph two-hander, Gruesome Playground Injuries. That show, tracing a 30-year romance via its two participants’ periodic visits to the emergency room, bled at least somewhat into reality when its two cast members, Gabriela Fernandez-Coffey and Tim Getman, chose to marry. I hope I’m not giving too much away by saying it would be a tragedy if Hova and De Abrew’s fates followed those of their characters quite so closely.

641 D St. NW. $43–$68. (202) 393-3939. woollymammoth.net.