By Dipika Guha. Directed by Jovanni Sy. A Gateway Theatre production. At Gateway Theatre on Friday, February 8. Continues until February 16
“We’re not just a clothing line. We’re a place. We’re a space. We’re a hope.”
This is the ethos of the Lululemon-esque athleisure giant at the centre of playwright Dipika Guha’s funny and biting Yoga Play. The company—or “the family”, as its cult-leader-like cofounder insists it be called—has hired Joan (Lois Anderson) to help it bounce back from a recent fat-shaming scandal in which the cofounder argued it was the size of women’s thighs making its yoga pants see-through, not the quality of the product.
Raj (Chirag Naik) and Fred (Derek Chan) are long-time employees of the company who have internalized aspects of the brainwashing. They only drink green smoothies for lunch rather than eat solid food, and instead of calling it “yoga”, they refer to it as their “practice”. But after a second scandal breaks—this time it’s rampant child labour and unsafe working conditions in one of the company’s Bangladesh factories—Joan goes into damage control. People aren’t really angry because of the exploitation, but because they’re feeling guilty, Joan says, so the focus needs to be on “self-forgiveness” and “authenticity”. If they hire the right guru, their PR crisis will be over.
Of course, it doesn’t go quite as planned, but to say more would be to give away some significant plot points that deserve to go unspoiled. What I can say is that Guha’s pitch-perfect skewering of modern corporate culture and commodified “wellness” will likely resonate deeply with Lower Mainland audiences. But Yoga Play is not simply a satire; it’s also a laugh-out-loud comedy that manages to be both farcical and pretty dark. Guha addresses themes of cultural appropriation, ethics, privilege, and power. At one point, Joan, a white woman, blackmails Raj and Fred, her two younger employees, both racialized men, one of whom is also gay and an immigrant anxiously awaiting his visa renewal. It’s a testament to Naik’s and Chan’s powerful performances and Guha’s nuanced command of satire that Yoga Play works so well.
Overall the cast is great. Anderson is a delight, and Christine Quintana is thoroughly charming as the plucky yoga instructor Romola. Chan does a beautiful job conveying Fred’s very real and very complicated story with compassion and heart. Naik’s performance is one of those star-making turns. The full extent of Raj’s journey is staggering, and Naik digs into it as if he’s been waiting for a role like this his whole life. Director Jovanni Sy’s warmth and wit shine through in Yoga Play’s physical comedy, and complement the sparkling, frenetic energy of Guha’s writing. Yoga Play is a hilarious indictment of our times, one that manages to galvanize the audience rather than demoralize us.