Sango Tajima as Ramona and Wes Gabrillo as Khalil in Elevada by the Shotgun Players. Photo: by Robbie Sweeny

“The Elevada: a tango high step to minimize contact with the ground.”

A romantic comedy may be the perfect respite from today’s dismal news. And who better than playwright Sheila Callaghan to create this bright, upbeat, contemporary entertainment, skillfully directed by Susannah Martin, that combines love, cancer, the tango, and the importance of Instagram’s social networking app?

Perky, vulnerable Ramona (Sango Tajima), and depressive, quirky Khalil (Wes Gabrillo), two young New Yorkers, “meet cute” when Ramona thinks she is on a date à la Tinder, but Khalil thinks he is attending some kind of marketing meetup. It seems that Owen (Soren Santos), Khalil’s screwball, recovering-addict roommate surreptitiously set up this date since Khalil spends all his time alone in his apartment on his computer, fulfilling his role as an Instagram activist/vigilante with millions of followers.

If you saw Shotgun’s 2018 Women Laughing Alone With Salad by playwright Callaghan, also directed by Martin, you will guess that there will be more to this date, and between these people, than in a typical Hollywood romantic movie. And you’ll be right.

Early in their date, Ramona tells Kahlil that she is being treated for non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and that she wants to relish new experiences while she can. Her chemotherapy port is visible and periodically emits a bright red glowing light, almost as though it were a beating heart. And Kahlil soon confesses that he is about to sell his name, his internet presence, and in fact, his whole identity to a multinational conglomerate. Khalil’s scheme is not easily explained nor understood, but no matter.

The psychological effects of Ramona’s cancer are explored sensitively in Elevada, as we observe Ramona existing in a transitional state where her life or death are acutely uncertain. So in a sense, Ramona is elevated, skirting the ground between her old, pre-cancer life and what lies ahead for her.

Both Kahlil and Ramona have siblings/sidekicks with whom they confide and with whom they share the yin and yang of brother and sisterhood. Ramona’s bossy but loving older sister June (Karen Offereins), a high-end real estate broker, has been mothering Ramona and supervising her cancer treatment. June is aghast at her sister’s sudden burst of love and energy. Has Ramona remembered to take her vitamins? Or perhaps June is uncomfortable seeing Ramona fly away from June’s carefully constructed coop.

Goofy Owen, who sees something in highly strung June that he can’t live without, takes on new maturity and purpose to win her over. His transformation is astounding. That’s what love can do.

We watch the couples grow and change during the two and one-half hour production (including one intermission). Some of the “snappy” dialogue is reminiscent of 90s sitcoms (and not coincidentally, whole plots of Seinfeld are repeated). And there is even a variation of the clichéd last-minute run-to-the-airport-to-save-the-romance.

It’s the variations, however, in addition to the acting and directing, that raise Elevada above the typical rom-com formula and turn the production into a semi-sweet confection that reflects the trials of 21st-century romance. All four actors perform their roles delightfully. Sango Tajima, as Ramona, has the juiciest part and makes the most of it. And what a terrific pole dancer she is! And as Owen, Soren Santos’ transformation as he pursues June is a pleasure to watch.

Callaghan’s effective use of contemporary language is a strength of Elevada, although the plot is a bit of jumble with a lot going on. Susannah Martin’s agile direction, the sparkling original videos (Erin Gilley) that form the distinctly New York City sets, accompanied by realistic background noise (Matt Stines), add professionalism and creativity to the production.

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...