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Magic Happens in Spaces Between Horrible Things

Elevada at Shotgun Players deftly blends comedy with pathos.

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Playwright Sheila Callaghan performs a high-wire act balancing wacky humor with risk-taking love in a laugh-and-cry rom-com. Shotgun previously presented her deconstructionist feminist play, Women Laughing Alone with Salad. Director Susannah Martin returns, having helmed Women Laughing, demonstrating with Elevada astute handling and an innate sensibility for the playwright's witty, poignant and profoundly human works. Martin simply "gets" Callaghan.

Khalil (an engagingly repressed Wes Gabrillo) is an online agitator who has sold his personality — and his soul — to a high-tech corporation. Unbeknownst to his bosses, he seeks to undermine the company's credibility by creating avatars who spread false information and vitriol on social media. On an awkward first encounter with Ramona (Sango Tajima displays superlative physical comedy genes throughout), Khalil tells her, "My fucking job is to hate them." We're not sure if he means the bosses, the avatars, their followers, or everyone.

But he doesn't hate everyone. In fact, Khalil falls like a meteor from outer space for the waif-like woman he mistakenly thought was a marketing consultant meeting with him to maximize his digital data points. Instead, his roommate Owen (Soren Santos brilliantly nailing the former drug addict/failed screenwriter persona), has set up the socially inept Khalil, hoping to push him into the happily ever after of romance. It is Best Buddy love; a thank you for having dragged Owen's heroin-addicted ass off the street, paying for his rehab, saving his life, and continuing to forgive his weakness for alcohol and failed love.

If Khalil and Owen are keepers of secrets, so is Ramona. Out of character on their first date, she reveals she has cancer — a button-shaped red port on her chest is used literally and metaphorically to good effect in multiple scenes. She also has a domineering sister, June (toxic love well-played by Karen Offereins), June is a successful Realtor and self-appointed commander-in-chief of Ramona's chemo treatments, nutrition, sleep schedule, and more. Between moments when she's not busy being bossy, June dons a thong from a collection she says is colorful, like a vegetable garden, and targets strangers in Starbucks in hopes of finding a Romeo. Experience leaves June with sharp, love-hate attitudes about men.

Distrustful of Khalil's motivations and her sister's ability to navigate love or any other aspect of life, June is definitely not into Khalil or Owen, when they eventually meet. Regardless, Khalil and Ramona tighten their bond while romping through outrageous dates — ice skating, pole dance classes and more — or fighting, having sex and engaging in the deceptions so often found in love relationships. Tangentially, a second romance revs up as Owen finds one-way chemistry for June.

It's fun to watch without foreknowledge the quartet's banana peel romantic pratfalls. And the hard hitting secrets, misguided reactions, and crashing hearts would not collide against the funny parts as effectively if revealed here. Either kind of spoiler-spilling would ruin the tantalizing unpredictability of Callaghan's deft, acrobatic play. Keeping one foot firm planted on the tropes/ropes of overbearing sibling, roommate with issues, awkward first date, "significant" second date and characters clinging to harmful childhood identity, the other foot dangles precipitously in the risky realm of wacko humor, of searching for and being in love, honesty, self-revelation and change. The play's four characters are relatable, ambiguous composites of everyone known or heard about; not just in the age of the internet, but throughout human history.

Although a few scenes in the two-and-a-half hour production oversell the humor, Khalil's "theoretical realism" and stretch credibility with Ramona's perpetual mousy victimhood and people-pleasing, the brief excursions into cancer are consistently and efficiently effective. Always occurring downstage left in a downcast pool of white light, Ramona receives a full body cancer scan, reports from lab tests, and more. In other short episodes, actors freeze, then move in slow motion. Ramona is always left alone, the partners drifting off like fog or disintegrating constellations.

Shotgun's Elevada seeks and, for the most part, successfully manages to hover in the liminal space often mentioned during the play. Described by Ramona as "where magic happens in spaces between horrible things," it is a location filled with humor, imagination and love, but bound by death, pain and loss. It's where we live and as long as we laugh, learn and leap into the unknowns, it's a place of hope.

Through Nov. 17, various times, $7-40, Shotgun Players, 1901 Ashby Ave., Berkeley, 510-841-6500, ShotgunPlayers.org

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