Hugo Carbajal as Miqueo and Marilet Martinez as Dalila in the Shotgun Players' production of Heart Shaped Nebula. Photo: Pak Han
Hugo Carbajal as Miqueo and Marilet Martinez as Dalila in the Shotgun Players’ production of Heart Shaped Nebula. Photo: Pak Han

Astronomy and mysticism don’t normally mix, but they do, and with varying degrees of success, in Marisela Treviño Orta’s 80-minute one-act play, Heart Shaped Nebula, ably directed by Desdemona Chiang. The play chronicles the love story of Dalila and Miqueo, she, an astronomy and Greek mythology fanatic, he, an artist. These star-crossed lovers meet in high school in their small Texas town, a town not unlike Orta’s small hometown in Texas.

As the play opens, we find Miqueo (accomplished actor Hugo E. Carbajal) in a cheap motel near Tonopah, Nevada, a town which apparently has the darkest night skies in the U.S. He plans to witness a massive meteor shower, which will help free him from grief over Dalila, whom he hasn’t seen in 14 years. Hiding in his room is a thieving stranger, 13-year-old Amara (impressive Gisela Feied), who seems to know too much about Miqueo to explain logically. Amara provides the impetus for Miqueo to recount his relationship with Dalila. We see through his hesitant flashbacks the tenderness and devotion of the couple as they grow up together.

Dalila (expressive Marilet Martinez), a charming, bright and exuberant girl, is fixated with science, astronomy and Greek mythology of the constellations. She romanticizes the constellation stories of Perseus and Andromeda and Castor and Pollux as lovers and brothers, respectively, who remain bound together in the universe through eternity. Through Dalila’s descriptions, the concept of a couple remaining together for eternity is romantic and enchanting. The well-acted cosmic relationship between Dalila and Miqueo are the best moments of Heart Shaped Nebula.

But Dalila describes her love in lengthy didactic scientific analogies to the point of being preposterous. I don’t know many women who would respond to a marriage proposal using a complex scientific explanation. Even Miqueo, who knows and understands her, has to ask whether her answer is “yes.” It’s as though she lacks any other form of expression. Author Orta describes this play as personal to her. Her father taught science and Orta loves astronomy and Greek mythology. So perhaps the use of scientific language is natural to her; however, a little goes a long way for me.

After Heart Shaped Nebula became a semi-finalist at the O’Neill Playwrights Conference in 2012, it became a finalist for The Global Age Project in 2013. Shotgun Players spent more than a year developing the drama further, with the aid of dramaturg Nakissa Etemad. In fact, changes were still being made last week.

It has been reported that Orta’s initial spark for Heart Shaped Nebula was an Amber Alert. The author “saw a man and a girl in a room,” and the drama grew from there. It may have, in fact, outgrown the concept of the motel room. The play begins with realistic dread — what is this light-fingered teenager doing in Miqueo’s room? —but moves within a too short span of time to a generalized exploration of love, death and one’s place in the universe. There certainly is the core of a creative and touching play here. But perhaps the development should continue a bit more to tie together its disparate elements into a more cohesive whole.

So what is the Heart Shaped Nebula? It’s a mix of glowing interstellar gas and dark dust clouds in a heart shape, located in the constellation Cassiopeia (ironically, mythic mother of Andromeda).

Heart Shaped Nebula is playing at the Ashby Theater through June 21. For information visit the Shotgun Players online.

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Emily S. Mendel

Emily S. Mendel reviews Berkeley’s vibrant theater scene for Berkeleyside. As a native New Yorker (although an East Bay resident for most of her life), Emily grew up loving and studying theater, from...