Sunday, October 27, 2019

When You Least Expect It

Many people can point to a moment that changed their lives. Whether it was the day they met their true love, received an AIDS diagnosis, or witnessed the birth of their first child, that moment brought a clarity to their lives they might have previously lacked. For some of us, historical events (ranging from the assassinations of such beloved figures as President John F. Kennedy and the Reverend Martin Luther King, Jr., to Harvey Milk) also fit that description.

Many a life-changing moment has been memorialized in song. Consider these gems from such legendary Broadway songwriters as Rodgers & Hammerstein, Jule Styne, Cole Porter, Frank Loesser, and Jerry Herman:

Fortunately for writers, life is filled with surprises. When formulaic rom-coms start to make romance seem too vanilla, it never hurts to imagine life outside one's comfort zone. Whether someone gets targeted by Cupid's arrow or discovers that they're in the crosshairs of a national crisis, happiness is never guaranteed.

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If you're looking for some fresh faces, a different twist on the classic rom-com, and a love story that, unlike Romeo and Juliet, has a happy ending, I heartily recommend Bangla, a wistful farce starring and directed by young Phaim Bhuiyan (who co-wrote the screenplay with Vanessa Picciarelli). The setup is pretty simple.

Poster art for Bangla

Phaim is a 22-year-old Italian-Bangladeshi virgin who lives with his parents in Rome's multi-ethnic Torpignattara neighborhood. His father arrived in Italy with hardly any money but managed to build a successful retail business which he eventually hopes to turn over to his gangly son (who resembles a dark-skinned Bob Denver from Gilligan's Island). Phaim's family lives in an area he describes as being populated by three tribes of people: old Italians, migrants, and hipsters. Unable to talk to his immigrant parents about love, sex, and women, Phaim gets most of his advice from his close friend Matteo (Simone Liberati), who deals drugs from a local park bench.

Phaim Bhuiyan is the star, director, and co-writer of Bangla

The fact that, as a Muslim, Phaim is not allowed to drink alcohol, eat pork, or have sexual relations before marriage (he is also expected to abstain from masturbation) leaves him extremely frustrated and bored with his job as a museum guard. His erotic daydreams include a sequence in which he is a pizza delivery boy who, in the course of a day's work, makes a delivery to a woman who can't seem to find her wallet. As she opens her blouse, suggesting that perhaps she could settle the bill in a more creative fashion, Phaim wakes up only find himself in his bed at home.

Phaim Bhuiyan is the star, director, and co-writer of Bangla

One night, just prior to going onstage in a small club to perform with his band, Phaim chats with an intriguing young Italian woman who seems way out of his league. Although their initial encounter is awkward, he doesn't dare bring her home to meet his family, who expect him to marry "a nice Bangladeshi girl."

Phaim Bhuiyan and Carlotta Antonelli in a scene from Bangla

When Asia (Carlotta Antonelli) invites Phaim to join her family for dinner, he is shocked to see a food fight erupt during one of the family's exuberant arguments. Later, when she invites him to meet two of her close girlfriends, Lavinia (Nina Pons) and Flaminia (Lavinia Andolina), Asia encounters a former work colleague named Ivan (Damian Ghimp) who has just returned from Australia. Seeing how easily they interact makes Phaim jealous enough to nervously start sipping from an alcoholic drink handed to him by one of Asia's friends. Complications quickly ensue.

Carlotta Antonelli (Asia) and Phaim Bhuiyan in a scene from Bangla

Just when it seems as if Phaim and Asia are starting to make some progress, Phaim's father announces that he is moving the family to London to help out a distant relative. The news leads Phaim on a desperate race through Rome to find Asia. Bhuiyan delivers an appealingly dorky and dark-skinned romantic figure while Antonelli shines as a liberated woman with mischief in her soul. Filmed in Italian and Bengali with English subtitles, Bangla is a surprisingly delightful low budget, cross-cultural rom-com being screened at the upcoming Third i Film Festival. Here's the trailer:

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The Shotgun Players recently unveiled their production of Sheila Callaghan's intensely challenging and provocative rom-com entitled Elevada with the following clarification:
Elevada was first produced in 2015 as a commission from Yale Rep. Sheila came to Berkeley recently to workshop the play with the cast and director, Susannah Martin, presenting us with a new draft right as we began rehearsal. She has continued to collaborate and rework the play from top to bottom throughout the process. While this is technically the third production of Elevada, it is the first showing of this brand new version.”
Wes Gabrillo (Khalil) and Sango Tajima (Ramona) in
a scene from Elevada (Photo by: Robbie Sweeny)

Few rom-coms are written for a quartet of actors and a 10-dancer tango ensemble (consisting here of Ebony Araman, Jonas Aquino, Xiaomin Jiang, Andy Collins, Maggie Kelley Connard, Jason Torres Hancock, Paul Melish, Mimu Tsujimura, Jessica Uher, and Quinci Waller). Nor does the dating game typically include a snap decision to learn pole dancing, a tense barbecue where nobody has a good time, a romantic lead wearing an implanted chemotherapy port, and a former drug addict having an emotional meltdown after discovering there is no almond milk left in his refrigerator. But as Susannah Martin explains in her program note:
“Sheila Callaghan is a rock star theatre-maker who captures the beauty and terror of falling in love, how our trauma shapes us and transforms how we love. Her plays are simultaneously meta-theatrical, intimate, structure-bending, genre-straddling, hysterically funny, and deeply human. Leave it to Callaghan to create a rom-com with magical moments, identity branding, avatars, addiction, and cancer treatment. I know from my own experience that cancer treatment is also about existing in a liminal space (you don’t know if the treatment is going to work or if you’re going to live or die). I felt so altered, so not in my body during treatment that, throughout the grueling process, I often felt like I was floating and falling simultaneously.”
Sango Tajima co-stars as Ramona in Elevada
(Photo by: Robbie Sweeny)
“In 2018, I had the honor of directing Shotgun’s production of the incendiary, profane, hysterical, and fiercely feminist Women Laughing Alone With Salad. As I launched into pre-production for Elevada, I was reminded that when we fall in love, we are plunged into a liminal space. We never know if taking the proverbial leap into intimacy is going to work. We don’t know if we’re going to fall flat on our faces or how it’s going to end. We don’t know anything other than what we feel -- and sometimes we don’t even know that. So why direct a rom-com in these perilous times? At any time (let alone in times like these) it’s a risk to love, to fall in love, to reach out despite -- or in the midst of -- your own personal traumas. To love is an act of activism and hope. And thus, making theatre about love, about falling in love despite the wounds we face in ourselves, our loved ones, and our world, is my direct action for these times.”
Sango Tajima co-stars as Ramona in Elevada
(Photo by: Robbie Sweeny)

While Elevada may stretch the limits of its audience's imagination, by the end of the play theatregoers will be rooting for its unlikely lovers as well as their feisty sidekicks. First, however, I strongly recommend checking out the Tumblr page created by the "real-life" Internet activist named Kenyatta Cheese (who inspired the character of Khalil). His description of the Project for Corporate Personhood reads as follows:
“The American Supreme Court and some politicians have declared that corporations should be treated as persons. So what happens when a person voluntarily assigns their personhood to a corporation? Can it be used to raise awareness of the issue of corporate personhood and create spectacle in the process? Kenyatta Cheese (creator of Know Your Meme, an artist, an activist, and a person) will sell the exclusive use of his name to a corporation for a period of three months. That corporation will assume both the real world and online identity of ‘Kenyatta Cheese,’ re-imagining his personhood as a brand with the help of ethnographers, lawyers, focus groups, public relations departments, a creative agency, and friends and acquaintances. During this period, Kenyatta (the person) will not be able to use his name except in the case of emergencies and air travel.”  
Wes Gabrillo co-stars as Khalil in Elevada
(Photo by: Robbie Sweeny)
The Project for Corporate Personhood (aka Kenyatta Co) is a three-month performance that explores the topics of ‘corporate personhood’ and personal identity. Kenyatta Cheese is doing this project for a few reasons. He became fascinated with the political and philosophical debate around ‘corporate personhood’ while setting up his own corporate entities. He also thinks a lot about the intersection of the quantified self and singularity theory. Also, as the only person in the world with the name ‘Kenyatta Cheese,’ he always thought there was probably an interesting project to be done with identity.”
Corporate avatars become a nightmarish challenge in
a scene from Elevada (Photo by: Robbie Sweeny)

After Khalil (Wes Gabrillo) rescued Owen (Soren Santos) from a near-fatal drug overdose, the two men became close friends and moved in together. Realizing that his socially-challenged roommate (a notorious but good-hearted hacker/provocateur whose pathetic attempts to express his feelings sound more like the code he writes as a programmer) needed help, Owen used his writing skills to craft an appealing profile for Khalil to use on a dating website. After answering Khalil's personal ad, Ramona (Sango Tajima) agreed to meet up with him for a glass of wine.

Wes Gabrillo (Khalil) and Soren Santos (Owen) in
a scene from Elevada (Photo by: Robbie Sweeny)

Having never been on an Internet date, Khalil is understandably nervous and awkward whereas Ramona seems surprisingly calm, collected and curious to learn who he is and what he does. She's certainly more open to taking romantic risks than her control freak older sister who took on the role of the family caregiver when their mother was dying. June (Karen Offereins) has resumed that burden -- as well as its emotional baggage -- as Ramona battles non-Hodgkin lymphoma. The kind of woman who tries to micro-manage other peoples' decisions, June's attempts at getting a date with a man border on a passive-aggressive form of stalking with a zero return on her hefty emotional investment.

Sango Tajima (Ramona) and Karen Offereins (June)
in a scene from Elevada (Photo by: Robbie Sweeny)

When Khalil realizes that he's experiencing warm feelings for a woman who doesn't mind his quirks and insecurities, he also learns that Ramona is battling cancer. At the very same moment he is busily engineering his own "disappearance," he's suddenly faced with the challenge of caring for the first person he has ever truly wanted. Meanwhile, Ramona is trying to cope with her medical regimen, June's well-intentioned bullying, and the fact that she is living on borrowed time.

Sango Tajima (Ramona) and Karen Offereins (June) in
a scene from Elevada (Photo by: Robbie Sweeny)

Working on an intriguingly fluid set designed by Mikiko Uesugi (with video by Erin Gilley, lighting by Cassie Barnes, and choreography by Natalie Greene), Callaghan's rom-com often resembles a political thriller as two recently-met lovers are forced to undergo a crash course in self awareness under increasing pressure from their looming medical and political deadlines.

In order to avoid too many spoilers, let's just say that Callaghan and Martin (with help from costume designer Alice Ruiz and sound designer Matt Stines) do an impressive job of building suspense and seducing audiences into suspending their sense of disbelief when faced with a choice that says "The rocket's leaving in 10 minutes with no guarantee of what may happen. Do you want to be on it or would you prefer to spend the rest of your life wondering what might have happened?"

Sango Tajima (Ramona) and Wes Gabrillo (Khalil) in
a scene from Elevada (Photo by: Robbie Sweeny)

Callaghan's play will resonate strongly with risk takers while more cautious souls may find themselves squirming during the drama's tense moments. Thankfully, the romantic leads are strongly drawn, the plotting is impressive, the laughs keep landing, the acting is superb, and the dramatic payoff delivers a refreshing twist on the rom-com genre.

Performances of Elevada continue through November 17 at the Shotgun Players (click here for tickets). Here's the trailer:

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