The Thinking Man's Idiot

The unruly brain and bad habits of a writer, artist, and grilled cheese sandwich-enthusiast.

Complicated Maneuver: ‘Yoga Play’ at SF Playhouse

yogaplay-820

“As you put on fresh new clothes and take off those you’ve worn,
You’ll replace your body with a fresh one, newly born.”
The Bhagavad Gita, Krishna – Ch. 2, v. 22

I’ve heard that I’m the only born-San Franciscan to have never taken a yoga class. Blasphemy, I know. Despite my having incorporate many-a-yoga pose into my stretch routines, I’ve never taken a proper class. The reason I never give this complaint any mind might have to do with the fact that everyone who’s ever been shocked by my “revelation” has been White. God forbid I don’t fit the stereotype of the San Franciscan who partakes in the admittedly-healthy-practice-that-is-overly-commercialized-and-borders-on-cultural-appropriation.

Dipika Guha must have had the appropriation in mind when she wrote Yoga Play. I imagine her taking a position not unlike that of Tony Soprano’s underlings in that early Sopranos episode; the one where they complain about how “Frappacino culture” owes more than a little to classical Italian espresso artisans.

Guha’s play is about an Indian-American trying to find himself amidst the very cultural norms that have been commodified by White America. Of course, finding yourself isn’t always the problem, it’s what to do with the “you” you find.

Yoga Play at SF Playhouse - set

Set by Nina Ball. Photo by Me.

Things couldn’t be better for Joan. After a rather infamous breakdown, she’s rebounded with a prominent role at a New Age wellness company just in time for the company to release their new $200.oo yoga pants. But all is not well: the BBC releases an exposé revealing that the pants are made in a sweatshop. It’s time for Joan and personal assistant’s Raj & Fred to go into damage-control.

They come up with an unorthodox solution: since this whole scandal reeks of exploitation by rich White people, they just need a genuine Indian guru to give his “okay” to the company and his products. With a few reluctant calls to Raj’s extended family, they find just a guru. But he might not be the face the company wants the world to see.

I’ll say this much: this script is certainly leaps and bounds over Guha’s last play, the ill-conceived In Braunau. Whereas that play was a misguided attempt to contextualize modern White racism using classic Indian symbolism, this play is more of an easy-to-digest satire of the sort of White Liberalism that thinks a single Bikram class makes them the reincarnation of the Dalai Lama. Low-hanging fruit, yes, but the comedy of the situation is usually derived from White people observing other White people rather than from the Indians who created the techniques.

This is well-exemplified by Raj, the assimilated Indian who’s spent years avoiding his culture and now has to exploit it for his White corporate bosses. First tangentially, in searching for the guru, then literally, when the guru they find isn’t to their liking and Raj has to be his proxy. “You think there’s a special place in Hell for people who appropriate their own cultures?” Raj asks. Comparing and contrasting his dilemma with that of Joan – whose gender means that if she makes one mistake, the boys club will blame her twice as much – is entertaining to which, if not always fulfilling.

Mind you, Guha still doesn’t know how to end a play and a few character beats throughout the play seem forced. Still, it’s enough to almost erase the stain of In Braunau from one’s memory.

That may have something to do with the fact that she has more skilled hands guiding this production. Playhouse AD/Co-Founder Bill English takes the helm for this production, putting the company’s best resources to work. English probably could have excised the show’s intermission, as he keeps the show moving at a steady clip without sacrificing any of the nuance of his cast. He keeps the stage well-balanced at all times and allows the actors to work on Nina Ball’s retro-futuristic set without being consumed by it. Putting aside the irksome choice to do all the transitions in full blackouts (no matter what show I see, this will always get to me), English’s direction elevates Guha’s script.

Leading off English’s script is the Playhouse’s own Susi Damilano as “Joan”. Looking at my notes, I see that I was particularly struck by moments during the livestream scenes when Joan can’t believe the New Age bullshit coming from the mouth of her pretentious boss (the hilariously obnoxious Craig Marker). Damilano’s WTF expressions alone are worth the price of admission, but she’s equally skillful in the moments venting Joan’s frustration that everyone wants her to fail. Even if Damilano weren’t the co-founder, her skills as an actor make it obvious as to why she’s one of the Playhouse’s most reliable performers.

So, too, is an actor becoming a Playhouse regular, Ayelet Firstenberg. Switching between number of characters, the most prominent is Romola, the LA yogini first seen hanging from a silk. As played by Firstenberg, Romola seems to genuinely care about Joan’s well-being. But the latter’s impatience clashes with the former’s good vibes (and business hours). Firstenberg is one of those performers we desperately hope stays in the Bay Area for as long as possible.

Also good as Joan’s right- and left-hand men are Bobak Bakhtiari and Ryan Morales as “Raj” and “Fred”, respectively. Both are given time to develop their characters, so as to make them more than just some White woman loyal PoC sidekicks. I mean, they still are and that’s a strike against the script, but it’s to the production’s credit that the characters are able to grow beyond that.

Nina Ball’s set is nicely accented by Theodore Hulsker’s projections, which rotate from company logos, livestream feeds, and simple window views. Rachel Heiman’s costumes perfectly capture the “Lululemon aesthetic” that I so despise seeing on the streets of San Francisco. When Kurt Landisman’s lights don’t completely disappear during transitions, both they and Hulsker’s soundscapes do well at setting the atmosphere – particularly with a key revelation at the end of Act I. And a shoutout must be given to dialogue coach Kimberly Hill, who keeps the accents from slipping into easily-mockable “Apu” territory. Good work all around.

There’s almost something poetic about realising something within your own culture by seeing it filtered through another. There’s a school of thought that our contemporary world – through connective technology and globalized commerce – has made “culture” irrelevant; that physical borders have been rendered truly meaningless when you can so easily connect with someone continents away. What the proponents of this thought fail to realise, either through absent-mindedness or willful ignorance, is that those “connective” innovations are still largely controlled and interpreted through Western (ie. Eurocentric) eyes. For example, the rise of Facebook, Google, and Amazon is less an exchange of cultures as much as digital form of colonization (one which regulators are just now starting to attack).

Yoga Play is a story about cultural appropriation as a sort of Möbius strip: being plucked from its Indian roots; sold by Westerners to Westerners; then having those Westerners use more Indians to deflect from their other exploitation of Indians. It’s not a perfect examination, but it’s a (mostly) funny one, all the same.

GRADE: B-

Yoga Play is scheduled to run until the 20th of April at the San Francisco Playhouse.
The show runs roughly 2 hours with a single 15-min. intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.

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