There are two dueling realities that exist in the delightfully charming and poignant production of “Elevada” from Shotgun Players in Berkeley. First, there is a love story that hits off immediately between two awkwardly charming subjects, a charm that raises the ooh and awww levels to eleven. But there is also the reality which brings that budding love into a place where illness and career intersect, turning affairs of the heart into a dastardly obstacle.
“Elevada” starts and finishes with its wonderful cast, each of the four talents taking turns stealing a moment or a scene, articulating the fresh words of playwright Sheila Callaghan, stewarded with clear force from director Susannah Martin.
The piece kicks off in a restaurant where two folks engage in a first date. For digital vigilante Khalil (an exuberant and charming Wes Gabrillo), a man who has sold his identity to a corporation, the online dating corner of the internet is new for him. Yet Ramona (a radiant Sango Tajima) has lots of experience in this world and is clearly more at ease. It’s the awkward geekiness that brings the jovial couple together with an untamed velocity and ferocity. No need to wait when a perfect match is, well, perfect.
But there is one other thing that brings these two souls together – Ramona’s cancer. In a testament to Ramona’s strong disposition, the port which is the conduit for her chemo treatments isn’t even attempted to be hidden. Cancer is a part of her identity, and if she is to be accepted on her terms, Khalil needs to accept the reality that he is falling for a person who is facing inevitable death. And he does, with stunning, loving passion.
Not everyone is exactly thrilled with this pairing. There is Ramona’s sister June (a sharp Karen Offereins) who is consumed with keeping watch over Ramona at all costs, all the while meticulously planning her thongs for the most special of occasions. And there is Khalil’s enigmatic brother Owen (a hilarious and broad Soren Santos), who is wildly unpredictable, writhing on the floor in one moment, and in the next moment eviscerating his brother for not purchasing him Dominican chocolate, the only chocolate he consumes.
The magic of the piece is that it takes the genre of romantic comedy and layers it with unpredictability. Lots of the rom-com touches are present – the awkward first date, a misunderstanding that leads to a near breakup, and a complicated resolution. But the nuance of Callaghan’s piece is what stands out. Consider the reasons for Ramona’s confounding decision to keep a diagnosis from both June and Khalil. There is an identity for Ramona that the play spends a great amount of time crafting, so why would she wish to take a chance of losing that identity? If that identity disappears, will the love stay? Losing a man who she can be weird with is not an option.
In the hands of Gabrillo and Tajima, the chemistry of the two is palpable and illuminating. Just notice how Tajima hangs upon every word, building every critical decision from the thoughts and connections she finds in others.
Gabrillo is in fine form here, gently guiding his arc with a variety of honest moments, playing a character that features huge emotional demands. His Khalil is warm and likable, and combined with the care that Tajima puts toward her Ramona, they make a couple that is easy to root for.
What is a little less predictable is the curiosity that springs from Owen towards June, and what works so well is in his evolution. For a good chunk of the play, he is the jokester, one that points out absurdities while pointing out the color of June’s latest glamour thong. There is a slight spark between June and Owen, with Offereins, who was fantastic in “Two Mile Hollow” at Ferocious Lotus, coolly playing Callaghan’s beats with a great dose of calibration. And Santos, whose Owen evolves into a bit of a sage by the end of the story, earns every laugh and tear he gets.
Adding to the ambience are some peak projections from designer Erin Gilley and delightful soundscapes from Matt Stines. Both the projection and sound capture the ambience of New York, especially the subway (the warmly firm “Stand clear of the closing doors, please” is a bit of NYC comfort food). And a deceptively high volume of styles, from poles to pasadas, were choreographed sweetly by Natalie Green.
In a traditional tango, the term “elevada” refers to the moment a dancer’s feet come off the floor. And while there are moments when Ramona and Khalil’s tango trudge on the cold, hard ground, ultimately, they discover what makes the tango one of the most beautiful dances anywhere.
It’s all about the perfect dance partner who will be there in the end, whatever end that may be.
Only then can the tango soar.
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
Shotgun Players present “Elevada”
Written by Sheila Callaghan
Directed by Susannah Martin
The Word: A warm, compelling dip into the rom-com genre, a piece that soars on the backs of its terrific cast.
Stars: 5 out of 5
Through Nov. 17th
The Ashby Stage
1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley, CA
Tickets range from $7 to $40
For tickets, call (510) 841-6500 or visit www.shotgunplayers.org