He is a self-proclaimed “online agitator” with four-to-five million followers who rarely leaves his apartment or takes a shower and has never been on a blind date. She is on her eighth, online-generated, first-date in the past three weeks (alas, no second dates yet). He has signed a contract with a megacorporation to sell his identity and cease to exist as a person for the next three months. On this their first date, she shows him her implanted, chemo port and tells him she is dying of cancer.
For Sheila Callaghan, all the perfect elements now exist for a wonderfully funny, totally heart-warming, and extremely intriguing romantic comedy that explores how totally awkward, disrupting, and risky it is to fall ecstatically in love . Shotgun Players premieres the third-round update of Sheila Callaghan’s newest play, Elevada – a production packed with twists and turns, mystery, stop-action dreams, magical moments, and (why not) a stage full of dancing tango dancers. In a word, this is an intelligent, edgy, hilarious rom-com that is nothing short of a “must-see.”
As Ramona quietly sips her wine, Khalil is on a non-stop, no-breath roll telling her about his online crusade to increase his fame and fortune as he tests the extent of the Supreme Court’s ruling that corporations have 14th Amendment rights as individuals. He is doing so by allowing one corporation to become him – in name, voice, online presence, etc. – while he disappears for three months, which he believes will be “kinda liberating.” As he continues in a near rant as if standing on a soap-box on the street corner, Ramona periodically injects “This is my first wine in six months” and “I have a charismatic digestive system” while also noting to him that “[you] have a very attractive neck” and “[are an] adorable guy who scratches his neck a lot.” Somehow that is all enough for these two misfits to begin to fit quite well together – that is until the “C-word” is dropped by Ramona.
But a first for both, that second date does occur, this time in a skating rink. Now the back-and-forth comes easier in conversation as neither seems too worried about the fact that the other may not be around for long. As Ramona notes, “You and me are both liminal … We’re both not quite here and not quite gone … Magical things happen in the in-between.”
Watching both Sango Tajima and Wes Gabrillo as their Ramona and Khalil find their ways through an uncertain maze toward a first kiss is seeing two incredibly talented actors draw us in in order to be an intimate part of their unlikeliest of romantic pairings. That first kiss comes after he tells her what doubtfully few preceding Romeos have ever used as their come-on line, “You have the sweetest little feet;” but for Ramona, that is all it takes for her to surprise him with that smacker. Off they go with a plan to hail a taxi and use funny accents to continue a date that has sent them both in the land of obvious lovey-dovey. Everything is now suddenly possible when as a couple they seem quite ready – as Ramona later suggests – to “do something that will probably humiliate us.”
For his best friend and her older sister, this is not at all what the two want for either Khalil or Ramona. Owen demands that Khalil “get off that cancer girl’s to-do list” while June is nonplused and not pleased when she first meets “the guy who is sending all those shame-grenades” over the Internet.
But even as Ramona goes for her next cancer scan, she and Khalil find crazy ways to be together (how about pole dancing?) and not to worry about their tomorrows.
They also decide it is time that another of the most unlikely of couples – June and Owen – should meet. June (Karen Offereins) is a successful real estate professional who dresses to kill in her heels and in stylish but always dignified, New York best. She speaks with inbred authority, is always on a schedule, and yet at the same time, clearly sees it is her duty to protect and watch over his much smaller and (in her mind) weaker, little sister. (Oh, it is also important to note that June has a notable collection of thongs in colors from eggplant to radish.)
Owen (Soren Santos) on the other hand is a recovering drug addict (you name, he has done it) who collapses on the floor in tears whenever the refrigerator no longer has any almond milk in it. He has replaced his heroin habit with a flask of whisky that is never too far from his reach; and he too worries a lot about his best pal, Khalil, who has recently been “in a dark place” and is “the least fun person I know.”
That June and Owen are another perfect couple in the making is quite a stretch; an initial barbeque with the four is not a picnic by far. (How is June to respond to Owen’s initial hell-o of “I drink three glasses of wine with breakfast” or he to her unbroken silence and looks of brood?)
But like the play’s title, Elevada – a term described in the program as “a tango move where a partner’s feet are elevated off the ground” – dancing and falling in love share similar sequences: floating at times as if in a dream, suddenly stumbling unexpectedly, feeling out of control as you are dipped the next, and then rejoicing elated as you are finally elevated and on top of the world. The problem with love, as we begin to see in Sheila Callaghan’s brilliant and explosive script, is that we are never certain in what sequence these events occur and which will be the final one – in the air or in a pile on the floor.
To go any further in what happens to these two couples would be to reveal too much of the roller coaster ride they have all boarded, both willfully and almost by accident. Like in any good rom-com – well, maybe not all rom-coms – there is some big-time lies to be discovered, some disappearances to come, and some harsh accusations; and there are also over-the-fence invasions, subway escapes, and dancing nightmares. And that is only a piece of what happens before the happy endings that we know are a requirement for the two-hour, thirty minute adventure since after all, this is a romantic comedy.
Each of these four principals gives an award-winning performance. Each has moments where we want to ring their necks and then turn around and hug them with delight. We truly get to know each of them as an individual while also each remains a bit of an intriguing and totally interesting mystery. Under the imaginative and insightful direction of Susannah Martin, their stories individually and in all possible combinations of pairings develop, unravel, and rearrange in unexpected ways.
Mikiko Uesugi has designed a flexible, raised platform of polished wood where scenic elements come and go through double doors that also open to reveal new settings. Those stage-commanding, closed doors that hide unknowns until suddenly opened are a great metaphor for what happens as these four people risk exposing more and more about themselves to both those they best know and the one they are each learning to love.
Projections on those white doors and the entire stage setting designed by Erin Gilley are cleverly used to be everything from a bar where stools can be pulled up to straddle to scenes and places all around New York where our couples go. Matt Stines’ sound design also helps establish those locations and send us on a subway ride where, when combined with the projections, I found it necessary to hold on to my arm rests to hang on for the ride. Cassie Barnes’ lighting design helps us distinguish between scenes taking place in reality and those in dreams or memory. June would be sorely lacking in projecting who she is without the costume designs of Alice Ruiz as would Ramona in communicating the shifts and changes that she undergoes.
There are so many lines of Sheila Callaghan’s script that will stay with me for a long time – none more than “You gotta sell out a little part of yourself to let a little part of someone else in.” There is much to enjoy, savor, and actually learn from her Elevada. As has already been said but is worth repeating, this Shotgun Players’ production is for so many reasons one not to be missed, a true “must-see!”
Elevada continues through November 17, 2019 on the Ashby Stage of Shotgun Players, 1901 Ashby Avenue, Berkeley. Tickets are available at https://shotgunplayers.org/ or by calling 510-841-6500.
Photos by Robbie Sweeny Photography