‘Heart Shaped Nebula’ tugs on heartstrings

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Oakland’s Shotgun Players presents the first full production of “Heart Shaped Nebula,” a tragic love story written by Bay Area local Marisela Trevino Orta. The play blends astronomy, myth and the supernatural, delving into questions of love after death through the experience of a man who lost his fiancee on the very day he proposed to her. With scientific imagery and shades of magical realism, “Heart Shaped Nebula” frequently shifts from heartbreaking to humorous, but the script occasionally lapses into melodrama.

Miqueo (Hugo Carbajal) is on his way to the desert town of Tonopah for an annual meteor shower, but this year, he hopes to let go of the grief he has carried for years after the death of his childhood love, Dalila (Marilet Martinez). On his way to Tonopah, he stops for the night in an empty town outside Las Vegas. Returning to his motel, he finds a teenage girl attempting to burglarize his room. The girl is Amara (Gisela Feied), a mysterious runaway who refuses to leave and demands he tell personal stories in return for the items she stole. In the resulting conversation, Miqueo reveals the history of his relationship with Dalila, from their lifelong friendship to his proposal, and in describing the romance, he allows himself to become vulnerable for the first time in years.

The small cast leaves little room for weak performances. Amara is both irritating and integral to Miqueo’s emotional transformation. Feied deftly portrays a misguided and often tragic agent of catharsis, and while the audience members will debate whether Amara is worthy of their trust even after the curtains close, Feied’s performance is decidedly exceptional.

Playing Miqueo and Dalila, Carbajal and Martinez provide energetic performances as star-crossed lovers whose romance drives the events of the play. “I was impressed by the chemistry between the actors who played Miqueo and Dalila,” said audience member and UC Berkeley alumnus Jack Sloman in an interview with The Daily Californian.

While all three actors delivered impressive performances, Carbajal was particularly moving as the heartsick Miqueo: He managed to convey sincerity and despair without becoming tiresome — a true accomplishment considering the frequently melodramatic script.

Indeed, many of the play’s shortcomings are the product of overwrought, often unnatural dialogue. Not only does Orta fail to capture the cadence of a conversation between strangers, but Amara’s lines vary widely, often sounding overly childish and beyond her maturity level. But Orta’s writing does contain moments of profound beauty — especially in conversations between Miqueo and Dalila that take on a poetic and heart-wrenching quality when Miqueo repeats them to Amara after Dalila’s death.

The writing succeeds when Orta abandons the attempts at realism that mar the first half of the script and instead embraces the surreal qualities of her story. Although she fails to replicate normal speech, when Orta embraces this failure, she allows herself a broader range of expression to depict the passion that ultimately distinguishes “Heart Shaped Nebula” from other ill-fated romances. A poet turned playwright, Orta’s talent shines through at the most poignant moments of the production, but her script stumbles in its introductory scenes.

In addition, the production succeeds partially because of the technical accomplishments of director Desdemona Chiang and a set that never overshadows the events of the play. Chiang uses light shows to represent the constellations referenced by the characters, and the set provides a mirror of the references to mythology that pepper the script. For those who enjoy the classics, the visual associations between Dalila and Andromeda cannot be ignored, and Geminis in the audience will appreciate the ample representation in Dalila’s astronomy lectures, during which she recalls the mythology behind various constellations and frequently returns to the image of the twins.

“Heart Shaped Nebula” isn’t perfect, but its faults are overshadowed by a talented cast, a stellar set and a script that at times captures the magnitude and beauty of young love.

“Heart Shaped Nebula” plays until June 14 at Shotgun Players in Oakland.

Contact Grace Culhane at [email protected].