The Thinking Man's Idiot

The unruly brain and bad habits of a writer, artist, and grilled cheese sandwich-enthusiast.

Romance is Dread: ‘Elevada’ at Shotgun Players

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Poster by R. Black for Shotgun Players

“I simply regard romantic comedies as a subgenre of sci-fi, in which the world created therein has different rules than my regular human world.”
– Mindy Kaling, Is Everyone Hanging Out with Me?

Let’s be honest: rom-coms are fascist as fuck.

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Khalil (Wes Cabrillo) and Ramona (Sanjo Tajima) oversharing during their first date. Photo by Robbie Sweeny.

Anyone who’s ever been through therapy knows that trying to medicate with sex is blatantly unhealthy. So, for rom-coms to push the idea that a good fuck will not only solve whatever problem you have, but that a first-night fuck is a great springing point for a long -asting relationship… yeah, that’s not just myopic, it’s outright dangerous. Abusive relationships start from that sort of asinine reliance on expectation over reality.

In fact, I find it the paramount of hypocrisy that Meg Ryan – so closely associated with the genre that she was dubbed “America’s Sweetheart” – had her career torpedoed by the fact that she had an extramarital affair with Russell Crowe (whose own career thrived afterward). I mean, look: I love Terence’s The Girl from Andros and Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night as much as the next drama nerd, but if those guys knew they were creating a genre that would one day give us She’s All That, then they might have thought twice.

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Ramona (Sanjo Tajima) and her sister June (Karen Offereins) have different ideas and approaches to love. Photo by Robbie Sweeny.

I’ll say this, though: this horrible genre gave playwright Sheila Callaghan a wonderful sense of focus. The last work of hers staged at Shotgun was an esoteric mess of a show for which the pretentious overtones (and racist undertone) were only saved by a great cast and eye-catching set design. This one also has those things working in its favor, but mercifully drops the esoterics and racism. The pretention is still there.

I believe that Callaghan thought she was subverting the genre, but all she does is reinforce the conventions and tropes that make the genre so harmful to begin with: the Meet Cute; the “sassy” BFFs; the ridiculous fight between our “happy” couple; the airport… yes, this play ends at the goddamn airport. I won’t spoil it, but if you’ve ever seen a flick from this genre, you know why it ends at the airport.

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But what of the story itself? Well, it involves a couple named Khalil (Wes Cabrillo, at his most Hugh Grant-like stuttery-ness) and Ramona (the always-reliable Sanjo Tajima). He’s a “tech disruptor” who’s sold his identity to a major tech firm; she’s dying of Non-Hodgkin Lymphona. Neither of them have ever watched Seinfeld. Aren’t those the most quirky character traits? Khalil has dickish roommate, Owen (Soren Santos), who thinks with his dick. Ramona lives under the care of her sister June (Karen Offereins), who’s stalking a cute co-worker. And that’s all I’ll say.

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Khalil’s (Wes Cabrillo) approach to dating isn’t as crude as Owen’s (Soren Santos). Photo by Robbie Sweeny.

Look, there’s no way for me to say anymore without spoiling. The paradox being that I wouldn’t spoil anything, because anyone who’s ever seen How to Lose a Guy in 10 Days knows how this all plays out. Callaghan thinks she’s offering her own spin on things with the anti-tech sentiment that permeates every scene, but she isn’t reinventing the wheel. It just has a shinier hubcap.

And that’s due entirely to Shotgun and director Susannah Martin. The play may not be anything special, but the cast at least give it their all. The first time I recall seeing Soren Santos – before his work with the Peripatetic Players – was when he played a mouse hopelessly in love with a cat (or was it the other way around?) due to brain parasite. Long story. Here, he as an actor comes off as the pleasant guy his character clearly is not. Owen is a dick who deserves to die alone, but Soren Santos has a face and demeanor that are hard to hate.

And then there’s Karen Offereins. I always have to tread lightly complimenting Karen because we’ve worked together before, but there’s a moment in the start of Act II that is worth the price of this show’s admission. Owen offers her bourbon, which she declines. As the other characters ramble on, the story told on Karen’s face as she eyes, ponders, then reluctantly takes up the drink is the sort of subtle (and hilarious) acting definitive of a performer in command of their craft and comfortable in their own skin.

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Ramona (Sanjo Tajima) and Khalil (Wes Cabrillo) have reached the all-important “pole dancing” stage of their relationship. Photo by Robbie Sweeny.

And it wouldn’t be a Shotgun show without a kick-ass tech crew. Mikiko Uesugi’s set is subtly misleading at first glance, but Cassie Barnes’s lights and Erin Gilley’s projections help reveal all the secrets the set is hiding. Barnes’s light are especially chilling when combined with Matt Stines’ sounds for the scene transitions, especially those that take us into Ramona’s hospital room. As the title would suggest, the play involves a significant amount of dancing, both of the Tango and “pole” variety. For both disciplines, Natalie Greene and her ensemble of 10 make the dances both intimate, yet accessible to those of us watching. As much as I felt the ending of the play went on way too long, it was as fine a showcase of Greene’s Tango choreography as much an earlier scene showcased her pole dance choreography.

And no, I haven’t forgotten costumer Alice Ruiz. Again, I won’t spoil it, but if you’ve never seen these four actors before, you’ll never be able to tell which one is wearing the wig. I actually have seen them and the revelation still took me by surprise.

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Khalil (Wes Cabrillo, lower-right) running away from himself. Photo by Robbie Sweeny.

If Elevada is a sign of Callaghan finally gaining focus in her work, then that at least should be celebrated. Her own sense of self-importance still overwhelms and her reinforcement of the genre’s conventions are as tone-deaf modern action movies trying to recreate the misogyny and racism of their predecessors, but at least Callaghan is saying what’s she’s saying in a way that makes sense. That’s a quantum leap over the last piece she put out.

The cast breathes life into their stock caricatures, but it ultimately just makes you wish they had better material to work worth. Preferably, material that actually did subvert the rom-com genre.

GRADE:                                                                C                            

Elevada is scheduled to run until the 17th of November at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley, CA.
The show runs roughly 2 hours 45 minutes with a single 15-min intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.

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