Playwright Mallery Avidon had an unconventional upbringing. As a kid and young teen she lived, on and off, in an ashram — the same ashram that later cropped up as a setting in Elizabeth Gilbert’s nonfiction book “Eat Pray Love,” later made into a movie starring Julia Roberts. Avidon mines those experiences in her engaging autobiographical play, “O Guru Guru Guru or why I don’t want to go to yoga class with you,” an attempt to reconcile several complicated, competing emotions about contentment, identity and spirituality.
Directed by Lila Neugebauer, “O Guru Guru Guru or why I don’t want to go to yoga class with you” opened Friday and runs through April 7 in the Humana Festival of New American Plays at Actors Theatre of Louisville.
The play is composed of three discrete acts, but that’s where the traditional approach ends. Upon entering the Victor Jory Theatre, friendly ushers check coats right on the stage while chatting with patrons. Those who prefer a strict fourth wall will see it punctured several times throughout the evening, which is closer to an immersive performance experience than a traditional play.
The first act is an extended monologue delivered as a lecture on “Why I Don’t Want to Go to Yoga Class With You,” featuring Rebecca Hart as Lila, whose upbringing mirrors the playwright’s. Lila first found acceptance, but later became disenchanted with the ashram and its guru leader. As an adult, she finds herself flailing without the spiritual certainty and daily structure that her faith previously provided. Hart’s nervous delivery is endearing and authentic, creating an interesting tension between what is simultaneously a frequently-delivered explanation and a series of rarely-revealed personal details that deepen that explanation.
In the second act, Lila returns to an ashram … and takes the audience with her. Audience members are invited by the ashram staff (Daphne Gaines, Maya Lawson, Kristin Villanueva, Gisela Chipe, all wonderfully costumed by Asta Bennie Hostetter) to remove their shoes and sit on pillows on the carpeted stage to participate in the program, which includes a spirited round of chanting. Jay Tollefsen’s shadow puppets illustrate one of the most engaging parts of the program, the story of how Hindu deity Ganesha became the “remover of obstacles.”
It’s easy to get caught up in the performance (and performance it is, scripted and tightly-controlled, yet giving off a slightly desperate whiff of “join us!” at the same time) or your own participation, depending, but Hart’s silent performance, sitting among the volunteers on stage, stayed true to the character throughout the act. As Lila watches the rituals she once loved, her face registers a range of emotions, from placid recognition to nostalgia, discomfort and pain.
The transition between acts two and three (let’s make it a surprise) provides yet another layer to the immersive experience. Act three sees Lila struggling with how to move forward with her life without the saftey nets that the ashram experience provided and seeking guidance from an unlikely new friend (played by the delightful Khrystyne Haje, better known to children of the 1980s as Simone on ABC’s nerd sitcom “Head of the Class.”). The third act is the most surprising, but also the weakest, as it contrasts Lila’s flailing sense of self with her friend’s complacent wisdom.
In an interview, Avidon says that she writes her plays for an audience of one, and for “O Guru Guru Guru,” she is the intended audience. That’s what the third act feels like — a writer working out her own issues with the help of a benign fictional spirit guide who expects nothing yet illuminates all of the play’s complex issues in a few soothing truths. It’s not clear what’s at stake for Lila beyond routine, just-turned-30 angst. It’s relatable enough, but doesn’t quite live up to the expectations introduced in the first act.