‘Namaste’ is a Dirty Word, in Yoga Play

In Dipika Guha’s play, a CEO practices her dog-eat-dog and cobra poses, at San Francisco Playhouse.

When the new CEO of an athleisure wear company asks, “What is yoga?” to one of her subordinates, the correct answer is a carefully concocted slogan: Truth. Authenticity. Jojomon. Joan (Susi Damilano) accepted the top job at Jojomon after the previous CEO caused a public-relations nightmare. His faux pas corresponds to a recent one at a real world company (Hint: it rhymes with Mumumelon). After his sexist, body-shaming comments damaged Jojomon’s reputation, the founder of the company fired him and hired Joan to replace him. In addition to her qualifications, her gender immediately improved the optics, and her first executive action is to order larger sizes in a new line of lavender-scented yoga pants in order to be more inclusive of bodies that don’t fit into a size 8 (or smaller).

In comparison with her predecessor, Joan is woke, even though she doesn’t enjoy doing yoga herself. But Dipika Guha’s Yoga Play (at S.F. Playhouse through April 20) isn’t about breaking the glass ceiling or Joan’s successful new campaign. Under her watch, Jojomon has recovered from one scandal only to stumble right into another. A BBC reporter finds out that underage children have been working at the factory where the pants are made. Joan is suddenly sent into crisis mode along with her direct reports Fred (Ryan Morales) and Raj (Bobak Cyrus Bakhtiari). The good news is that John (Craig Marker), Jojomon’s New Age founder, has gone offline for a month, which will give the trio time to come up with a plan for doing damage control.  

In the extended first scene, Guha establishes the play’s satirical tone by depicting John as a loopy male version of Goop’s — “a modern lifestyle brand” — pale blond leader. He’s the epitome of an over-privileged, white dude who’s co-opted cultural artifacts from other countries in the name of healing, only to repurpose them for personal profit. Yoga Play builds its comic momentum up slowly, adding in wry asides along the way that comment on what it means to work in corporate America. At Jojomon, the employees are required to take meditative breathing breaks and to tell each other their dreams.

Joan (Susi Damilano) seeks advice from L.A. yoga expert Romola (Ayelet Firstenberg) (Jessica Palopoli)

Fred and Raj are office buddies who’ve started to confide in each other. Guha gives each of them a strange dream to recount. In Fred’s, he’s sitting next to a pigeon on an airplane who shits on a plate and then tells him to eat it, which he does. Raj says that he dreamt he was pregnant and that he gave birth through his penis. This is the playwright’s way of suggesting that she’s created psychological profiles of her characters to accompany the facts she provides about their backgrounds. Those confessional scenes are short and punchy, punctuated by blasts of electronic music. They’re also unnecessary asides that tilt the narrative off its axis. In this case, that’s a good thing.  

Guha’s tale about ordinary souls who get subsumed by commerce and the strangling hands of capitalism isn’t revelatory. Her plotting is conventional. She’s created a series of obstacles that the characters have to overcome on the way to the finish line. But we start to root for these greedy businesspeople because the playwright endows them with recognizably human vulnerabilities. Before she started at Jojomon, Joan had a nervous breakdown of some unspecified kind. She’s wanting to prove to herself and to her underlings that she’s still capable of wielding power.     

On the other hand, Raj, a Harvard Business School graduate who is detached from his Hindu heritage, dejectedly exclaims, “I want to feel.” Even though he doesn’t specify an emotion, Raj is single and we suspect that what he wants to feel is love. All the Jojomon-required yoga workouts aren’t bringing him toward the happy path of romantic enlightenment. Fred’s able to feel but, as a gay man, he’s worried about his green card and the possibility of being deported back to Singapore, his homophobic homeland. With these three main characters, Guha touches upon issues involving female empowerment, racial and sexual identity — but she does so lightly. Yoga Play ends as a farcical, physical comedy, and that boisterousness felt like it was the truest and most authentic expression of the playwright’s aesthetic.

Yoga Play, through April 20, at S.F. Playhouse, 450 Post St. $25-$100; 415-677-9596 or sfplayhouse.org/sfph

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