A Romantic Comedy at Yale, But Is There More To It?

By Karen Isaacs

Elevada, the world premiere play now at the Yale Repertory Theater through May 16, will speak most specifically to the younger generation -- those that have been raised on social media, the internet, and the new culture of relationships.

The rest of us may struggle a bit to truly understand this play by Sheila Callaghan, which was commissioned by Yale’s Binger Center for New Theatre and the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.

Yet, at heart it is a romantic comedy.

We have four characters: Ramona and her sister, June and two guys -- Khalil, who has apparently made a lot of money in the new media, and his roommate, Owen, a writer who while in recovery, is still drinking.

All are in their 20s or perhaps early 30s and they live in New York City "NOW" as the program puts it.

The play opens with Ramona and Khalil in a bar having drinks. From the conversation you can tell they don't really know each other; it is a first date. But we quickly learn that while Ramona knows it is a date, Khalil doesn't. He is awkward with face-to-face contacts and this meeting has been set up by his roommate under the guise that Ramona needs help with her computer. But they do hit it off. Both are quirky and a little off-center; Khalil with his social awkwardness and Ramona who seems to be doing a good job of sabotaging the potential for a relationship. The scene ends with her displaying her shunt; she has cancer and is undergoing chemotherapy.

From there we learn more about them but questions remain. We meet June, Ramona's older sister, who is businesslike and practical and tries to take care of her younger sister, reminding her about medications and appointments. Owen, who is apparently a writer, never seems to write but does drink wine and vodka. He may be off hard drugs but he is obviously not in recovery.

Yes, there is a lot of talk about the new media -- and more talk in the program about it. Cell phones are lifelines, social media is the be-and-end all, and Khalil works, though unpaid, at observing communities on social media. He is also in negotiation to sell his identity to a corporation for a period of time and "disappear" while others are him all over the world. Neither concept is totally understandable.

Yet at its heart, Elevada is the developing love story between Khalil and Ramona. For though they may be "millennials," as this generation has been coined, they are two people looking for an emotional connection and, at the same time, afraid of it.

Complications arise. Ramona, beautifully played by Laurel Casillo, defines herself through her cancer, yet she is bubbly and brimming with life. Is she trying to test Khalil and maybe even her sister to determine their "staying power"? She does go from wanting attention and help to pushing them away. Is she so defined by her cancer that she has lost other parts of herself? Or has she been wounded by previous relationships? We are never sure of the answers.

Alfredo Narciso's performance as Khalil is nuanced. He is not just your typical social media nerd, though at times the character does fall into stereotype. He could remind you of the autistic character in Dancing Lesson seen earlier this season at TheaterWorks. His grand proposal -- to sell his identity -- seems nebulous, yet the character is getting multiple offers from major corporations.

In the course of the play, Ramona does her best to push away both Khalil and June. Owen tries to attract June but he is in many ways as awkward at social relationships as Khalil. June also does not seem that comfortable when not behind her business-like facade.

Director Jackson Gay has assembled an excellent cast that really is able to capture the characters. Laurel Casillo and Alfredo Narciso as Ramona and Khalil show us the insecurities of the characters and develop real chemistry between them. Casillo makes Ramona mercurial without being either "flighty" or annoying. Narciso gives a subtle characterization.

Keira Naughton, as the efficient June who is almost always in business suits, lets us into June's multiple dimensions: her concern for and mothering of Ramona, her anger at times, and her loneliness.

Greg Keller keeps Owen from being a stereotypical boozing author.

The scenic design by Kurtis Boetcher at times is annoying. Every time the sofa rises from beneath the stage, two stagehands move it about six inches one way or another. Why?

The costumes by Steven M. Rotramel perfectly exemplify the different characters: June in black or navy business suits, Owen looking sloppy, and Ramona in more colorful and sometimes bohemian attire.

So what is this play trying to say? One idea is that as research is now showing, younger people have become so involved in social media that they are increasingly uncomfortable and inept at face-to-face communication and relationships. Or perhaps it is the idea that while we seek love we are also afraid of it and thus keep try to push it away or test it.

The title, Elevada is somewhat puzzling. At one point, it seemed to refer to the fact that the furniture kept rising from below the stage, but it obviously has more significance. A brief reference in the play -- when June and Ramona are at a dance/tango class -- led to discovering that "elevada" is a tango term for dancing without keeping the feet close to the floor. This was an older style of tango which a tango dictionary -- there is such a thing on the internet -- said occurred when the tango was danced on dirt and stone surfaces. A Spanish dictionary defined it as "exalted, raised aloft, sublime, majestic, high, grand, lofty." So perhaps the title refers to the elevating qualities of love and connection, which all people need.

And it must be mentioned that there are a couple of surreal moments that don't seem to fit into the rest of the work. At one point, multiple people come on stage wearing grotesquely huge heads that look like Khalil and disappear as inexplicably. It seemed out of place in the work.

That the point isn't clearer is the fault of playwright Callaghan, who is a young playwright. Though Elevada is the recipient of a 2014 Edgerton Foundation New American Plays Award, this is still a play that needs work.

Elevada is at Yale Rep, 1120 Chapel St., New Haven through May 16. For tickets visit yalerep.org or call 203-432-1234.

This review appeared in Shore Publications, zip06.com and 2ontheaisle.wordpress.com.

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