Theatre Review: ‘O Guru Guru Guru’ at the Humana Festival

Rebecca Hart as Lila. Photo by Alan Simons

[The 37th Humana Festival of New American Plays runs through April 7 at the Actors Theatre of Louisville.]

“O Guru Guru Guru or why I don’t want to go to yoga class with you” by Mallery Avidon
Directed by Lila Neugebauer
The Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville
Through April 7, 2012

View Chuck’s video blog review with Leslie Wobbe

Synopsis: “Lila does not want to go to yoga class with you.  Not because she doesn’t like stretching or has no discipline or worries she might be bad at it.  Not because she doesn’t like you.  The reason Lila doesn’t want to go to yoga class is not easy to explain, but that doesn’t mean she isn’t going to try… When you discover that the system of belief in which you once found meaning no longer holds currency for you; when you find yourself a little older, but not necessarily wiser; when the question of ‘where do I go from here’ feels impossibly high-stakes, but impossible to answer, what do you do?  Lila is hoping to figure it out today—and she has brought notes.”

“O Guru” is really three interconnected plays in one long (80-minute) act.  In the first one, Lila attempts to explain to the audience, with notes and slides, why she can’t do yoga anymore, despite growing up in an ashram.  But she can’t show any slides because everything about that ashram is copyrighted, the notes don’t stop her from digressing, and she eventually leaves the stage in frustration—at which point the theatre is suddenly transformed into a yoga studio, complete with an instructor and assistants in colorful saris.  They invite audience members to take off their shoes and chant with them.  They share personal stories about what yoga means to them.  They present a cleverly executed shadow puppet story about the origin of Ganesh.  Then they invite everyone to close their eyes and meditate.  When the audience opens their eyes, though, the scene has shifted again.

At which point I have to stop summarizing, because much of the charm of the third play lies in the way it messes with the audience’s sense of reality.  Let’s just say it neatly brings us back to Lila’s original issues in a way that provides satisfying dramatic closure and a bit of a life lesson.

Rebecca Hart heads a solid ensemble cast as Lila, so convincingly in the moment that when she momentarily lost her place in the script, it looked like Lila was confused and not the actress.  Just as impressive, as the yoga instructors and other roles, were Daphne Gaines, Maya Lawson, Kristin Villanueva, Gisela Chípe, and Khrystyne Haje.

Lila Neugebauer’s direction manages the shifts in tone and perspective nicely.  Technically everything is beyond reproach (although there was a minor glitch with the slide projector when we saw the show).  The running crew shifts Andrew Liberman’s minimal sets with cinematic ease.  Ásta Bennie Hostetter’s costumes are well chosen, with the saris for the yoga instructions being particularly attractive.  Jay Tollefsen gets credit for the beautiful shadow puppets.

The bottom line on “O Guru” is that while it might not be a profound work, it’s unfailingly charming, entertaining, and creative.  And that, to quote a famous song lyric, “is all right with me.”