Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company is presenting the regional premiere of Guards at the Taj by Rajiv Joseph with the tagline: ‘Brotherhood, brutality, beauty, and blood. Lots and lots of blood.”.That is certainly an apt description. Charles Isherwood titled his New York Times review of the 2015 Atlantic Theater Company production ‘Guards at the Taj,’ Two Ordinary Guys Ordered to Do the Unthinkable. BETC tells the story as well as any New York production might. The audience at the Dairy Center sold out opening kept the lobby buzzing discussing what they had just witnessed during the post show reception.
I followed up with the director Stephen Weitz via email.
EL: How did you become familiar with Guards at the Taj and what made it the right fit for this BETC season?
SW: Rajiv is a writer I’ve long admired so I was immediately interested when a colleague forwarded me a copy of the script. We found the script to be everything we look for in a story: profound, funny, strong characterizations, and very timely as well. A lot of our content this season has to do with difficult conversations and bridging (or not bridging) schisms between loved ones. With the many difficult conversations happening in our country at the moment, this seemed like a natural fit in that landscape.
EL: This show may be unfamiliar to many, how do you describe it?
SW: It’s a bit difficult to encapsulate the plot without giving away some pretty important spoilers. But at it’s core, it’s about a deep friendship between two men and how that friendship is tested and ultimately splintered by being caught up in a truly horrible series of events. It’s challenging and thought provoking (and more than a little gory in places), but it’s also beautiful and sweet and funny. So I guess I would say, it’s a lot like life.
Sam Gilstrap and Jihad Milhem star in BETC's production of Guards at the Taj by Rajiv Joseph (photography: Michael Ensminger)
EL: What is the importance of presenting a Regional Premiere for a company like BETC?
SW: We’ve now presented so many (30+), that producing Regional Premieres is just part of our identity. But it does demonstrate our commitment to scouring the country to find the best new plays and presenting work that our audiences can’t see anywhere else in the area. It also allows us to give voice to contemporary playwrights who we feel are on the cutting edge and saying important things with their work.
Jihad Milhem and Sam Gilstrap star in BETC's production of Guards at the Taj by Rajiv Joseph (photography: Michael Ensminger)
EL: Every production has unique challenges and discoveries during rehearsals, what stands out for this production of Guards at the Taj?
SW: This play has some really unique technical challenges. Without giving away anything, I’ll just say that it has definitely tested our abilities onstage and backstage. But that’s part of continuing to grow and mature as an organization. You always have to stretch yourself to keep moving forward.
Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company presentsGuards at the Taj
Director: Stephen Weitz
Stage Manager: Rick Mireles
Assistant Director: Jenna Moll Reyes
Set Designer: Ron Mueller
Costume Designer: Katie Horney
Lighting Designer: Jacob M. Welch
Sound Designer: Daniel Horney
Fight Director: Benaiah Anderson Crafts Artisan: Anneke Ciup
It is billed as an exploration of Charlotte Brontë’s classic novel Jane Eyre. The new look at the 1847 Charlotte Brontë story features original songs by Teacup Gorilla and Dameon Merkl (Lost Walks, Bad Luck City). The creative team behind the hybrid play/concert adaptation is author/musician, Miriam Suzanne, and former director at The LIDA Project, Julie Rada. They describe it as a dark and often humorous look at the early feminist novel — bringing a contemporary, queer perspective to Jane’s story.
My email Q&A with Miriam Suzanne
EL: What was is about Jane Eyre that inspired you to create this as your first full-length show?
MS: Julie has loved Jane Eyre since she read it in school. When she proposed it as one of several options, Miriam had to do some research to get caught up – and fell in love quickly. (Julie Rada clarified: “I didn’t read it in high school. I read it a few years ago for fun.”)
We were excited by the first-person, internal perspective of a woman growing up – a format that jumps quickly between exposition, private emotional ruminations, and cutting political statements. This is complex woman, trying to find independence in a world that won’t allow it. She’s acutely aware of power, privilege, and class in every moment – and willing to step outside the story to address it.
Meanwhile, she’s just a kid growing up: falling in love, experiencing heart-break for the first time, and pondering death, religion, and forgiveness. She’s in the action, and also looking back on it. This wild mix of personal and political, action and reflection, is how life feels to me – and I find that interesting to explore. We highlight it in production by having two Jane’s on-stage, passing the story between very personal moments, and outside commentary or narration. Lindsey Pierce plays in the action, with Miriam commenting as she provides underscore with the band.
For the second edition of the novel, Charlotte Brontë (as Currer Bell) writes a scathing preface – a defense of her character against pious critique – and then suddenly wanders off into a tangent about her favorite author: William Thackeray. The books has an attitude, and an agenda, in addition to an interesting character. We love the tangents as well as the layered authorship – Brontë writing as Bell, who writes as Jane, narrating from 10-20 years in the future. So we put Brontë on stage as well, played by Julie – sometimes defending her work, and sometimes commenting on it from a more contemporary perspective.
EL: How would you describe the music for anyone not already familiar with Teacup Gorilla?
MS: Teacup Gorilla was once called “too moody for pride” – and that seems
appropriate. We merge instrumental “post-rock”/”indie-rock” aesthetics with poetry, and story-telling – for a sound that is both moody and cinematic, even when we play at bars. We enjoy big dynamic shifts, and carrying the audience along on a journey from one song to the next – shifting musical genres as necessary to get where we’re going.
According to Tom Murphy in the Westword: “Teacup Gorilla’s amiable creative approach, unorthodox roots and sense of community have resulted in a sound that is difficult to pin down: part instrumental rock, part glam, part psychedelic, part jazz-inflected. And it sounds like nothing much else in this highly imitative era.”
On a more practical level, we’re often compared to early Modest Mouse, Explosions in the Sky, and Velvet Underground. For this piece we’ve also taken inspiration from Django Reinhardt, Parlement Funkadelic, Mark Knopfler, Anglican hymns, and elsewhere.
EL: You described the project as “bringing a contemporary, queer perspective to Jane’s story.” — there are many intersections of identities that can be encompassed in ‘contemporary, queer perspective’, can you describe what queer perspective(s) are at work in this adaptation?
MS: Julie and I are both “contemporary queers” – so on a very basic level, our own perspectives fit that description, and we’ve gone out of the way to include our perspective in the piece: adding ourselves to the authorial stack: writing as Bell, as Brontë, as Jane. And we’re not alone: there are queer women in the band, and playing music before some performances.
But we also bring an understanding of queer history, queer theory, intersectionality, and contemporary thought to a story that is both feminist and problematic at times. When Brontë writes about Jane’s close, physical relationships to Helen Burns or Diana Rivers, we can read those as queer relationships – written before “lesbian” or “bi/pansexual” identity-groups had formed. So we dig into that un-named queerness and draw it out. Suddenly Mr Rochester becomes one of several love interests, treated on equal footing with the others.
We say “queer” with a sense that it is different from a more descriptive “lgbtqia” – a way of understanding fluid identities, sexualities, and labels – concerned with intersections of the political and personal. Queer theory starts from questioning “normal” – what is it, who decides, and what power dynamic is behind it? That’s the same foundation that Jane seems to work from: constantly questioning what she’s been told about gender, class, religion, mental health, and so on. Sometimes that provides problems for us, when Brontë’s understanding of race and colonialism fall far short – brushed to the side without much thought. How can we as adapting authors comment on that, and critique the story as we tell it?
Each year at the Colorado New Play Summit I make my picks for full productions by the Denver Center Theatre Company, and I had a perfect record, until 2016. The year included American Mariachi by José Cruz González. The reading was wonderful, but It wasn’t chosen for production that year. But now a full production has finally arrived! The world premiere is produced in association with The Old Globe. (the production continues in tact at the Old Globe March 23 – April 29)
This production directed by James Vásquez lets this talented company play our heartstrings as much as the fantastic Mariachi music in the story. Now it’s not a musical as much as it is a highly stylized story of memory, family, love, hope, and music.
When American Mariachi wasn’t produced right away I hoped there would be another chance to see it come to life in a full production. It was certainly worth the wait. This is a funny, and heartwarming story deftly told. Beautiful performances and production values capitalize on the magic unique to live theater.
The E-Ticket is Eden Lane’s Top Pick
By José Cruz González
Directed by James Vásquez
Produced in association with The Old Globe
This is the best opportunity to hear your play with great artists, in a great location and in a great environment. This is a place where audiences really come to experience something new.” – José Cruz González, Playwright of American Mariachi, Part of the 2016 Colorado New Play Summit