Khalil’s (Wes Gabrillo) spirit animal is a stag.
He’s a single guy, sure, but not much of a ladies’ man. His main activity is sitting home alone in his apartment hacking away on a laptop. That’s why his best friend Owen (Soren Santos) signs him up for an online date. But to get him out of the house, Owen has to lie about it. He tells Khalil that he’s arranged a meeting for him with a publicist to help out with his online brand. It turns out that Khalil ’s an influencer with millions of followers. In virtual reality, he wows his audience. Out in public, he can barely influence his dog let alone woo a potential girlfriend.
That awkward first date between Khalil and Ramona (Sango Tajima) is the starting point of Elevada, Sheila Callaghan’s busy take on a romcom. As they’re getting acquainted with each other, we don’t, as yet, have the backstory to make sense of their halting series of miscommunications. When it slowly begins to dawn on Khalil that Ramona thinks they’re on a date, he realizes what Owen has done. He tells her that, even though she’s beautiful, he’s incapable of having an intimate relationship. Tajima — one of the Bay Area’s most physically expressive actors — registers Ramona’s disappointment in every atom of her character’s face and body.
But Ramona doesn’t end the date. She removes a scarf from around her neck that’s been covering her chemotherapy port. With that quick reveal, Ramona impetuously announces that she’s dying of cancer. It’s the way she tests her suitors to see if they can handle the difficult news.
For her, Khalil is the last of a long line of first dates that go nowhere once she declares she’s suffering from Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma. To her surprise, Khalil doesn’t smile politely and walk away. Despite his anti-social tendencies and cluelessness when it comes to romance, he’s genuinely interested in and attracted to her.
The language in Elevada is contemporary and smooth as a TV movie. The plotline is as familiar as films like The Fault in Our Stars or Love & Other Drugs. Comfortable, reassuring films that feature dying protagonists and their noble but equally damaged partners. Callaghan tries to distinguish her version by endowing Khalil and Ramona with quirks. They’re meant to be meeting in a place that can bring them both back to life. But the playwright often presents Ramona as yet another iteration of a Manic Pixie Dream Girl. To make sure we understand that she’s special and unique, the playwright has her fixate on off-kilter, adorable phrases like “tiny cistern.”
Perhaps, due to her illness, Ramona doesn’t have a job or hobbies that have sustained her attention. When she takes a pole dancing class, it suggests the limits of the character’s imagination rather than indicating what an edgy, risk-taker she is. The collection of odd thoughts she carries around in her brain slips out of her mouth when conversations get stuck in the doldrums. Within this limited framework to draw from, Tajima tries to convey a whole person. She gets closer when she’s acting with Karen Offereins, who plays her recently divorced older sister June. Throughout her illness, June has been Ramona’s caretaker. As her sister’s new relationship develops, June resents and mistrusts Khalil. Offereins excels at pouting and acting out indignance by holding her neck out stiffly.
Callaghan provides June with a subplot that’s meant to mirror the main storyline but it doesn’t work. Owen and June play a drawn-out variation of the “Will they or Won’t they?” game. Part of the problem is that Santos and Offereins have no chemistry together. Additionally, their questionable interactions distract the playwright from having to focus on and clarify Khalil’s internet troubles. A corporation wants to buy his identity to have access to his database of followers. Khalil claims that he’s a nihilist, that he’s fine with the erasure of his digital existence. It’s Ramona’s peculiar life force that’s meant to save him from such a heady metaphor — and vice versa.
Elevada also incorporates dance metaphors to illustrate the process of falling in love. You elevate your feet when you do the tango. But Ramona and Khalil are mostly in a state of angst, creating inelegant emotional turmoil for themselves, each other and everyone around them. A better name for the play might have been the arm-shaking Boogaloo or the endearingly contrived Watusi.
Elevada, through Nov. 17, at Shotgun Players, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley. $7–$34; 510-841-6500 or shotgunplayers.org