SALT LAKE CITY — Yoga Play (written by Dipika Guha) is a play, currently on stage at Salt Lake Acting Company, about the different manifestations of culture: its intersection with race, immigration, family origin, and the workplace. The Utah premiere of this comedy is a treat for local audiences.
Yoga Play opens with Joan attempting to convince the owner/founder of Jojomon — a yoga apparel company — to expand their yoga pants up to a size 12 (instead of the current size 8), and John (played by Joe Crnich) only agrees when Joan tells him how much money the company will make in their first quarter. Joan’s story is very much about being a woman in a high profile job, and it is of particular interest when she tells Romola that she’s “not mean, just busy,” which causes Romola to cry because that is something her mother said to her as a child. Unfortunately, the company is the target of a backlash for the conditions in their factory, and the characters must find a guru to save Jojomon.
Additionally, the play turns a focus on Fred (played by Archelaus Crisanto), a half-Chinese Singaporean man who had gone to jail for two years for being gay (which is criminalized in his country). He talks about how his mother paid for his way for college, and that he has a visa to live and work in the United States. We eventually learn about Raj (played by Abhiijith Harikumar), who is Punjabi and whose parents immigrated to the United States in the 1960s. But Raj is completely disconnected from his Indian culture: he doesn’t speak Hindi, he isn’t a practicing Hindu and doesn’t know anything about yoga.
Given its title, Yoga Play has a physicality of the play that cannot be ignored. The play revisits this theme of breathing, as each character holds each other’s hands and take several deep breaths. This is repeated multiple times, often for comedic effect. (When Gurugi arrives, almost all he does is exhale loudly.) There are the scenes where Joan has fainted (from the breathing exercise!) and wakes up in Romola’s yoga studio in LA; as Romola clears away the negative energy around Joan, they get into a slap fight. When Raj — disguised as the new guru — goes to Romola to learn how to do yoga, there is a moment where she almost sits on him to get him into position, and then literally lays on top of him. This tight-knit cast executes the physical comedy of Yoga Play well, and Penelope Caywood‘s careful directing never lets it slip into a ridiculous slapstick.
In the beginning, Caywood’s directing moved the play quickly, as if she were rushing to the get to the main plot. But, once the characters are on the hunt for a guru, Yoga Play settles into a hilarious night of theater that makes all the earlier material pay off. Puhich, Crisanto, and Harikumar are a superb comedic trio, and every one contributes a strong performance. Even though Anusua plays a more supporting character in Romola, she excels at her own quips (“Namaste, bitch!”) that are super quotable. But the play also has the ability to address the issue of the culture of work, such as when Joan (played by Jeanette Puhich) gives an impassioned speech about being a woman in the workplace, talks about how women are not given second chances, and how she was fired from her last CEO position because she had a heart attack (her “heart stopped”).
Yoga Play is rife with accents that are out of place. First we have Fred, who has a very distinct Boston accent, but he is an immigrant from Singapore and the play is set in California. Raj is from Delaware and attended both Harvard business school and Amherst, and he has no discernable accent to speak of. In one segment, a BBC newscast, the news anchor (played by Crnich) does not sport an English accent of any kind. Toward the end of the play, when Raj interviews with an Jojomon ambassador in Colorado, she has a distinctly Texan accent. And of course there is Guruji, a white man from Santa Monica who went to India and now has an Indian accent that comes and goes as it pleases.
There is some of the nifty technical elements that make the set (designed by Gage Williams) particularly pleasurable. It feels interactive: to the side, there is a screen that brings the technology of the real world into the play. At one point or another, it facilitates a teleconference between the team and John (who is on vacation at a beach somewhere), shows a BBC newscast, displays the different potential gurus that the team is trying to pick from, and is even used to conduct an interview toward the end of the play. It is such a fantastic use of technology and imagination and is in keeping with Salt Lake Acting Company’s reputation for excellence in scenic design.
The play doubles down on the realism by the use of speakerphones. Joan calls upon a receptionist (uncredited in the playbill) several times throughout the play, and the unseen character even gets her own dream story sequence that thoroughly reminded me of Welcome to Nightvale. Speakerphone also is prominent when Raj calls his parents, whom he claims will know gurus that they can contact, resulting in one of the funnier scenes in the entire play.
Matthew Taylor‘s lighting design accentuates key moments and contributes to the interactive feel of the show. For example, the lights dim to purple each time a character shares a dream they have had. Also, the shift to blue lighting when the audience meets Romola (played by Jennica Anusua) emphasizes the importance of the character. Finally, the way the lights dim and settle on Raj when he has an epiphany while sitting next to Guruji made the moment stand out in the evening.
Yoga Play is a laugh-out-loud comedy that really digs deep into what it means to be authentically Indian, that asks what yoga really is, and confronts the question of who people really are and what do they actually need. The play is a definite must-see that brings a breath of fresh air to the theatre scene in Utah.