Review: From Child Pose to Stand(ing) Up: "Yoga with Jillian" and "Penguin in Your Ear" at the Women in Theatre Festival

Yoga with Jillian

Written by Lia Romeo

Directed by Andrew W. Smith

Presented by Project Y Theatre and Richard Jordan Productions in association with The Pleasance

June 2-17, 2023

Penguin in Your Ear

Written and performed by Eliza Bent

Directed by Jess Barbagallo

June 10, 2023

Part of the Women in Theatre Festival, presented by Project Y Theatre at A.R.T./New York Theatres

Michole Biancosino. Photo courtesy of Project Y Theatre
This June, Project Y Theatre Company presents the eighth annual installment of its Women in Theatre Festival (WIT), which showcases new work by women and maintains "more than 50% female representation of all artists involved." This year, the festival includes a lobby installation project, titled In the Betweens, from scenic designer Chen-Wei Liao, through which audience members pass on their way into the theater proper. One first chooses first between "light" and "dark" rooms and then moves into "the gardens" before reaching the performance space. At each step, one is encouraged to pause and take some time (something facilitated by, for instance, the sound muting properties of draped fabric and the subtle sounds of birdsong), a push towards delay and taking a breath if not engaging in reflection at a point when theatergoers are generally focused on moving quickly to their seats. Whether intentionally or coincidentally, this encouragement produces a generative alignment of In the Betweens with the thematic concerns of Project Y Theatre Associate Artistic Director Lia Romeo's zeitgeist-capturing comedy Yoga with Jillian, making its world premiere at WIT.

The titular Jillian, played with both comedic flair and genuine pathos by Michole Biancosino, Co-Founding Artistic Director (with the show's director, Andrew W. Smith) of Project Y, envisions her yoga class as a cleansing space, divorced from the neverending stressors of the world outside. Notwithstanding her admonitions to let go (a function that yoga and comedy might be seen to share), Jillian has a lot on her mind. And as she leads her class, she can't help but reveal to them much of what's weighing on her. In an ingenious touch, the class comprises part of the audience: you can buy tickets for seats or to experience the show immersively from one of about ten yoga mats matching the set's aesthetic of cool blues and purples. (Even from the normal seats, this adds extra dimensions, such as the fun of watching "class" members try to hold their yoga poses while laughing or being addressed from extremely close-up by Jillian.) This particular class session, we learn, is also a tryout for a new yoga studio–having left her previous career immediately pre-COVID, Jillian is still struggling to establish herself in her new field, a struggle made much more difficult by the pandemic. The pandemic and its aftermath, in fact, begin to loom large in Jillian's all too relatable confessions of economic, health, and existential difficulties.
Michole Biancosino (center). Photo courtesy of Project Y Theatre
At one point, Jillian raises the excellent question of whether it's your own fault if you aren't well, if you just need to work (and/or spend) harder. This perspective is very similar to how we talk about poverty in the United States, which similarly helps to prop up our ethically bankrupt exploitative and individualistic capitalist status quo. We have (apparently), Jillian points out, agreed to the fiction that everything is back to normal and we are all fine, but, she asks, does that make it less of a fiction? As the expectation that we will push through the pain plays out on stage–and Biancosino makes Jillian's physical pain look wince-inducing–it acts to symbolize the ways in which that expectation permeates the cultures and structures our own oppression. Jillian also mentions living through the climate apocalypse as part of her and our anxiety-saturated contemporary existence, and seeing the play just a couple of days after actively dangerous air quality drove New Yorkers inside for a new variation of lockdown, it's hard not to identify with her. (And sure, she, or we, could live somewhere with less debilitating rent, for example, but she, and we, can't outrun climate collapse.) However, Jillian, overwhelmed as she may be, also points to an ameliorative alternative path, again neatly symbolized by an onstage event, that involves a radical ethic of collective care–and, in a small but significant role, Cannibal Corpse's "Hammer Smashed Face."
Michole Biancosino. Photo courtesy of Project Y Theatre
A number of the productions in the festival are running on a double bill, and the performance of Yoga with Jillian that we attended was paired with Eliza Bent's stand-up show Penguin in Your Ear, billed as "a work-in-stand-up-comedy process." In slightly less than half an hour, the very funny Bent takes on topics from her experiences in caste-bound academia (some of this material resonates, like In the Betweens, with Yoga with Jillian) to tipping (and its similarity to another activity that you probably won't expect) to polyamory to the "lawless" interior of her parents' refrigerator. Penguin makes playful use at points of Bent's avowedly reserved New England persona, and it weaves in some hilarious callbacks as it moves towards a brief rapid-fire climax.

Whatever else is on the bill, Yoga with Jillian is as funny as it is cathartic, an honest and accurate representation of where many (most?) of us are right now. Work through the pain and go see it: it'll be good for you.

-John R. Ziegler and Leah Richards


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