Category Archives: Leah Callen

Hush Little Daisy

Baby with the Bathwater

By Christopher Durang

Directed by Clayton Jevne

at Theatre Inconnu

Until October 18

Reviewed by Leah Callen

Welcome into the cozy crib of the Dingleberries, the most dysfunctional couple on the block. In this dark parody on parenting, Helen and John start out terrified of raising their child the wrong way. But not to worry. Very quickly, the Nyquil and Quaaludes take over as they relax and ruin him in innovative ways. Though family tension is nothing new in storytelling, Baby with the Bathwater certainly serenades the audience with an unexpected lullaby as we follow Daisy’s life, from his first moments to his 30th birthday. Baby Daisy somehow grows into both the centre of their world and a painful afterthought as his parents switch moods faster than the settings on a blender.

Things complicate further when Nanny marches uninvited into their home– a scary Mary Poppins who is part “Auntie Mame” and part “antichrist.” Lorene Cammiade delivers the character’s warped lines with such a cheerful English accent that I couldn’t help cracking up. The surprise Nanny and her startling antics subvert the saccharin stereotype, and she seems to chastise parents for hiring strangers to raise their children.

This hyperfamily is hilarious. To pull off a hundred-minute play whose entire plot spotlights a baby doll is quite a theatrical victory for both playwright and production. And the audience laughs all the way through. It’s fitting that the baby is a physical prop since the child in the story is treated as more silent prop than person. Durang’s witty dialogue is anything but clichéd as one character reads Mommie Dearest to the poor thing as a bedtime story. And speaking of props, a great one was the red rattle that comes with a warning label: made with lead, asbestos, and red dye no.2. It sums up the toxic love in this story and the universal risks of naïve parenting.

As Daisy ages and sprawls unresponsively on the playground in existential malaise and his neurotic mother goes into passive-aggressive catatonia on the floor at the feet of her drugged-up husband, one can’t help wondering who drove whom crazy – the baby or the parents? The psychology of child development around early trauma and learned behaviours gets fully exploited here. This is a love/ hate relationship as illustrated when Helen yells “I love you. I hate you!” at Nanny before they all go to bed. In the same bed. Ahem. Since Helen always yearned for either “a baby girl or a bestseller” and her writing career never surpasses Spark Notes, Daisy is raised as a girl until 15 years old when his masculinity can no longer be denied.

The ’80s flavour this play, yet it still rings true for today. Sometimes the tragic bolts that strike border on being too random. Strangers run in and out of their lives with disturbing intimacy at first sight. People just happen to be run over by buses. And characters can seem a tad one dimensional at times. But, this is a satirical tribute to all the magical nannies and fairy godmothers of childhood fiction. Instead of a big bad wolf, you get the baby-eating German Shepherd. So it makes strange sense.

Tea Siskin was fabulously funny to watch as a designer mother at the playground. She was Marisa Tomei meets Snow White on valium, as sweet and flaky as homemade apple pie. As Helen and John, Rebecca Waitt and Jack Hayes unravel comically before our eyes, from uptight and spring-loaded to loaded with amphetamines and ambivalence. Still, somehow these extreme characters represent the fumbling of every family with every child.

The giant baby blocks that make up the set spell out small, subtextual words during the play like die and def, and add an increasingly menacing tension between innocence and pain. One can’t help feeling these grown adults raising this child have all the common sense of a baby themselves.

This play arcs beautifully from the absurd to sane. Matthew McLaren plays adult Daisy and brings a needed counterpoint to all the outrageous chaos. When he appears, it’s a wonderful turning point in the play where reality bleeds through and we feel the darkness of the irony – comedy melts into tragedy.

But just when it could sink too deep, the end is a relief, the proverbial diamond ring that should come since the mockingbird refused to sing throughout Daisy’s unfortunate childhood. Despite the traditional lullaby being perverted in every possible way, it somehow ends on a final note of hope and that is so rewarding after the emotional mess that poor Daisy endures. This ending is earned. Normal has never been so refreshing. If there is one positive message you can take home with you from Baby with the Bathwater, it is this: you can survive your childhood and rewrite its song.

Leah Callen is completing her MFA in playwriting at the University of Victoria.

What happened was…

What Happened Was…

A play by Tom Noonan

Directed by Clayton Jevne

At Theatre Inconnu, ends March 8

Reviewed by Leah Callen

What if you were a fly on the wall during a frictional first date?  Noonan’s play invites the audience to peep into an open window as Jackie tries to bag her co-worker Michael in a sad attempt at romantic connection.  So used to being alone, at first our heroine doesn’t even hear her hero ring the doorbell.  But when Jackie opens the door to Michael, will he ever reciprocate?

The two characters make up stories to colour in the tedium of their actual lives, yet struggle to hear one another over the “mental static” in their own minds. One tries to rekindle a wild past and the other puffs up a non-existent past.  What’s peculiar:  each character seems unworried by the alarming traits that surface in the other. Whether it’s a confession that one hears subliminal voices in a Beatles song or a disturbing preoccupation with baby bones, not a single eyebrow is raised.  Ironically, these unsettling idiosyncrasies are the only charge the pair shares.  Weirdness turns them on.

The delicious icing on this theatrical cake is a nightmarish children’s story that Jackie serves Michael over dinner.  Much like the characters, I found myself hoping here for an entertaining shock, and it did not disappoint.  Though you expect something grotesque to scare off a man, Jackie’s Freudian fright somehow encourages Michael to unpack his own emotional skeletons.

The claustrophobic set itself is strangely menacing, with its palette of roses and ash. Everything is whitewashed and darkening around the edges, and door and window frames feel bare as bones.  When Jackie stands in the kitchen door frame, responding to verbal thrusts from her guest, I couldn’t help but think of a guillotine.

Catriona Black plays a woman who attacks her date with hungry enthusiasm.  The keenness of her character had me flashbacking to an edgy British cartoon I read in my youth, Minnie the Minx.  It feels like Jackie’s wearing a social mask, the one many wear on first dates when they’re trying too hard, and you wait for the moment when it dissolves.  Meanwhile, Michael Romano plays secretive Michael with cool, reptilian calm.  Right from the start, it’s clear these two are mismatched, yet Jackie forces the date forward, half in desperation and half in politeness.  The situation is wonderfully awkward.  Typical to life, the man is arrogant over nothing, and the woman is self-effacing over everything.

I hoped Michael was recording the conversation as he hinted, that he had some malevolent purpose beyond being a passive date. The voyeuristic pleasure of an audience watching an intimate moment feels watered-down when the main fall out is simply some hurt feelings.  Michael’s briefcase became a physical ruse to me, as I kept waiting for some sinister secret to be revealed, but he never opens it.  The real risk in this play is figurative:  people opening up to each other, not knowing whether that truth will be accepted or rejected.

Perhaps that is the dramatic cake underneath the icing: in our cubicled lives, we are so used to talking to ourselves and singing along to pre-written lyrics that we rarely risk being original and reaching out to other people. Romantic heroes and heroines no longer exist.  Most men just want to live safe lives where they’re told what to do, and women are left alone listening to their own echo.

Leah Callen is pursing her MFA in writing, with a drama focus.

A triumph of battlefields and bed sheets


 At Theatre Inconnu

 Starring Clayton Jevne

 Adapted by Clayton Jevne from Robert Nye’s novel

 Oct. 4 – 19th


Reviewed by Leah Callen


 Sex!  And now that Falstaff has your attention, let the laughter guide you somewhere unexpectedly divine.  Clayton Jevne is incredibly authentic as he fills the boots of John Fastolf, a lusty English knight who is said to have inspired Shakespeare’s Falstaff.  As he tells us tall tales about his wars and whores in rich detail, this one-man confession had me laughing, blushing, and crying.  With characters such as Pistol and Shallow, you’re bound to crack a smile. 


This storytelling is unapologetically profane, but surprisingly sacred and poetic at the same time. As Fastolf relives every sexual exploit of his life from the cradle to old age, we hear episodes that are both pornographic and beautiful – from a young woman’s creamy breasts and cherry nipples, to the butterflies that magically burst out of a bishop’s hand.   Just when one may get too uncomfortable with all the innuendo about his “soldier,” “in a flash of sack” the story takes a soulful turn.  Don’t let the prim music at the start fool you, though.  Hold onto your seats!  I felt my cheeks glowing in the dark.


Fastolf shares an intriguing point of view on some of the most famous medieval battles, witnessed from the edges of history. Audience members can get a little lost on this history map if they don’t have a built-in compass for it, but the accounts are so vivid that it doesn’t matter. While he miraculously conquers the French by throwing jewels and herrings at them, philandering Fastolf is conquered by chaste women. The saints slay his heart. Jevne paints a stunning image of Joan of Arc that is beyond human and, to me, the most bewitching part of the narrative. 


Jevne’s full costume reminded me of a naughty Puss in Boots.   The character certainly tries to spin his life in magical proportions, moving from the mindless thrusts of youth to the far sight of age.  But Fastolf travels a touching arc from a hyperbolizing hedonist to one humbled.  We see both a public and private persona in this play – a man embellished with bravado and the bare soul hiding inside him.  As he spins these far-out tales, Jevne creates an iconic pose, his lower half leading the way.  It suggests a character led by his worldly appetites.  But he is reduced to his knees before God, turning away from the audience.  The faceless humility of that pose is striking. 


Though the protagonist is larger than life, Jevne’s masterful acting never fell into caricature.  There was a natural flow to all his facial expressions and gestures that made the whole show feel genuine.  It was enthralling, watching him light up with lust and melt gently into tears.  Perhaps this play’s final wish is for us to be more promiscuous in our compassion and love for other human beings.  When our lives fade out, which will be the most powerful memories left behind: our selfish joys or our random acts of humanity?


Leah Callen is an MFA student at UVic.




Recycled Shakespeare is a Riot

Goodnight Desdemona (Good Morning, Juliet)

A play by Ann-Marie MacDonald
Directed by Ron Jenkins

The Belfry

Sept 17 – Oct 20

Reviewed by Leah Callen

Constance Ledbelly, the unrecognized Queen of Academe, is a slave in inky chains at her desk at Queen’s.  While falling for a plagiarizing prof and trying to prove that Othello and Romeo and Juliet were originally comedies, she tips head-first into the recycling box – and into Shakespeareland.  Goodnight Desdemona is a playful, magical adventure in the theatre of the self, pitting real life against the stage

As the audience flowed into their seats, I couldn’t help feeling wowed by the visual detail of the set.  The staging is spectacular, with swordfights that get the blood going to ingenious trips through time and space.  If the Bard ever wandered into an episode of the Twilight Zone, this would be it.  Everything gets turned on its head, from a bloodthirsty Desdemona to a slutty Juliet – bloodlust and physical lust out of control.  The moment Romeo stops a sword with his long-stemmed rose like a Renaissance flower child, you have a feeling this star-crossed hero may take to cross- dressing.  Sexual orientation is up in the air as characters swoon for both sexes in their quest for satisfaction.

The physicality of the actors is a blast as they swing from the rafters and balance atop bookcases.  The contrast between cynical, awkward Constance and her melodramatic Shakespearean counterparts is a riot.  Lighting is literally striking in this production, as are the trippy sound effects and music.  In fact, this play milks as much out of the stage as possible with props and surprises.  Though the heroine is endlessly philosophizing with wonderful wordplay, you  never get bored, thanks to the theatrical action.

Daniela Vlaskalic is charismatic as the romantically challenged bookworm Constance Ledbelly, cloistered in her intelligence.  Her nerdy character borders on caricature, but she also has charming quirks, such as her parakeet pen, long johns and open-minded attractions.  Nicola Elbro is a punchy Desdemona who roars her way gloriously through the story.  Most of the actors here multi-act.  Jameson Matthew Parker brandishes a double-edged sword as both the lovesick Romeo and the bitter Iago.  Michael Dufays fumes as Othello, but also delights us as Juliet’s nurse – more Irish than Roman Catholic in this tale.

MacDonald’s parody of Shakespeare is hilarious.  The night I attended, I heard  non-stop laughter through Pippa Mackie’s upside down antics as desperate Juliet.  But some of the story struck me as over-the-top chaos:  as pieces of Constance show up scattered in this parallel world, I just couldn’t wrap my head around Tybalt balancing her appendix on a sword.   It stretches the limits of belief.  Costume-wise, the cross-dressing was a lot of fun, but I wasn’t sure I bought Desdemona’s hot pants.  They left me wondering why.

Still, this a joyful journey that celebrates the magic of theatre, as the mousy yet brilliant heroine struggles to grow a spine and appreciate her own value while giving the boot to the bad guys.  You’ll thank your lucky stars you saw it.


Leah Callen is an MFA student at the University of Victoria.  

Old-fashioned Russians steep in the blues

Uncle Vanya
Written by Anton Chekhov
Directed by Brian Richmond
Blue Bridge Repertory Theatre
@ the McPherson Playhouse
Until June 16th

Reviewed by Leah Callen

In Uncle Vanya, life is a painful operation that begs for morphine, and the woods are heavy with sadness. When a famous professor and his young wife arrive on their Russian country estate, the locals lose their minds. Melancholy catches on among the forest inmates.  These human shadows squint psychologically through darkness, pining for light to brighten their dull lives. Drunk on vodka and unrequited desire, these Russians moan and steep in their misery. When tempted by romantic risks and revenge, some decide that living on a ledge is better than dying of boredom.

As the matriarch Marina pours the tea, characters boil over and grow cold. The doctor Astrov feels as numb to joy as a patient who has been chloroformed. Jacob Richmond plays his drunken scenes with an entertaining abandon and I feared for his safety as he balanced precariously on furniture. As self-righteous Sonya, Casey Austin portrays a pragmatic idealist, invisible to all the bachelors because of her plain face.  She often brings out the best in people with her simple purity, but develops a weary patina over time that is fatalistic. She really just wants to be loved.

Vanya despairs that he has wasted his life and wants to do something about it. Duncan Ollerenshaw’s performance ranges from subtle to over-the-top. Drowning in a deep midlife crisis, Vanya is attracted to the red flash of Yelena’s hair as she graces an outdoor swing like a rare songbird. Amanda Lisman was beautiful as the free spirit desperate for passion to heat her lukewarm life. She suffers from a loveless marriage, unable to spread her wings in her marital cage.  Her controlling husband Serebyakov, played by Chris Britton, was both starchy and wilting as he rules the roost with his whims. When Yelena broke down, I cried too. I wanted her to be free. This actress emoted even when she had no words.

The birch-coloured costumes blended elegantly with the set; characters were human trees cutting one another down. Their clothing had a nineteenth-century uniformity, but over time it struck me as olden-day beige–a symbol of hopeless ennui. Only Yelena wears some sky blue when she tries to soar, or maybe it’s the sea since the men see her as a siren. The diffuse lighting, Russian chant, and hints of guitar brew up potent atmosphere. Uncle Vanya seems more driven by mood than plot. This play creeps inside you like nightfall as the birches grow from gentle to suffocating.

The stage bloomed with visual metaphors: the winding of yarn as characters discuss fate, the unloved Sonya embracing roses that were given to another woman, Vanya pushing the swing of the woman he’s trying to seduce.  A touching moment arose when two women share a cup of wine, a peacemaking communion. However, I struggled with how abruptly chaos explodes on stage later. The sudden intensity of the most dramatic scene seemed slightly comical. Though I enjoyed the emotional fireworks, it was a touch melodramatic.  Still, the plot is perfectly frustrating in this forest of futility.

Chekhov’s moody masterpiece is deeply poetic, but it also made me laugh. It was both darker and lighter than I imagined–a theatrical chiaroscuro. Perhaps only a Russian writes that our best hope is to dream in our coffins. One can’t help feeling that these people bury themselves alive. They think goodness equals boredom and only destruction leads to joy, that life is a dull pain to be endured until it’s over. I wanted to shake them out of their emotional comas or prescribe them anti-depressants–to beg them not to give up on happiness. Perhaps that was Chekhov’s point. And I really wanted a shot of vodka when the play was over.

Leah Callen is a budding poet-playwright-screenwriter in Victoria.

Six Tudor roses open after death

Til Death: The Six Wives of Henry VIII
@ The Uno Festival, Intrepid Theatre
Written and Directed by Ryan Gladstone
Starring Tara Travis
May 29-June 1

Reviewed by Leah Callen

Tara Travis performs a theatrical feat in Til Death as she channels seven ghosts: Henry VIII and his six wives. The former queens of England, now stripped down to their skivvies, fall into purgatory. Poor Anne Boleyn is bodyless while the shameless hussy Catherine Howard somehow coaxed St. Peter to return her body (there is sex in Heaven, folks). The British bureaucratic angel informs the women that only one of them will be allowed to spend eternity in Royal Heaven with Henry. They must vote amongst themselves: who did their precious patriarch love the most? Let the irony begin as women who were divorced, abandoned or chopped up by the man fight to win his heart

The grandiose drama queen Catherine of Aragon slurs the feisty Anne Boleyn as being a puta, and the horsey Anne of Cleves becomes the naive butt of all their jokes. Catherine Howard is the oversexed valley girl of the group, missing a few gemstones upstairs as she flirts with St. Peter by swooshing her skirt. Katherine Parr remains the most stalwart and patient, having survived four husbands.

I marvelled at how one woman could emote such varying voices and I bought it, sometimes forgetting this was one actor. Each character has her idiosyncrasies; each even reacts uniquely to finding herself in underwear–from indignant to self-indulgent. This individuality carries through to physical gestures, accents, and nicknames. Catherine of Aragon demands her formal name Caterina while childlike Catherine Howard prefers to be known as Catie, Queen of the Fairies. The play is peppered with modern slang, which spices up the farce and makes this otherwise historical harem more human. Alongside the laughs are some poignant confessions from the Tudor roses as they open up to each other on the other side. We hear their romantic regrets and secret hardships.

Though these queens and their rivalries are familiar to anyone who knows the history, the ending is anything but. Things are not in Heaven as they were on earth. I think I was most pleasantly surprised by the prim Jane Seymour. The physical way in which she explains childbirth to Anne was too far-fetched for me, but I loved the courageous thorns she grows. The six ex-wives bond in unimaginable ways with uplifting results.

Personally, I was gobsmacked that the nymphet Catherine Howard wasn’t Henry’s first choice as a companion for all eternity. The kitten-in-heat seems like a philanderer’s paradise. Though the queen whom Henry once called his rose without a thorn was one of the most strongly developed characters, her superficiality robs us of hearing her pain about dying so young. Her ghost is said to scream to this day, so that seems an oversight. Still, Catie was the star of this show for me.

This Anglican Heaven is full of red tape, but open-minded about sex and gay marriage. As an Anglican, I had to laugh out loud at the religious pokes. Though the angels seem very forgiving, I still think Henry VIII should go to hell.

Leah Callen is a budding poet-playwright-screenwriter at the University of Victoria.

Swept off my feet by a lady and an iron horse

May 25, The Metro, Uno Festival, Victoria
Written and performed by Evalyn Parry

Reviewed by Leah Callen

SPIN is a fun trip through time and metaphor on a three-speed steed steered by the talented Evalyn Parry with Brad Hart as back-up. I can honestly say this was the first time I’d ever heard someone play a bicycle like a musical instrument. That alone is worth hearing. The play uses song, spoken word, and monologue in an ode to cycling and ingenuity. As we ride through the scenic past, we are reminded how important it is to keep on trailblazing.

Though I am not a bike lover (yet), I enjoyed the obscure stories of these biker women; SPIN really spoke to me. Annie Londonderry teaches us a lesson in guts: the first woman to cycle around the world taking only her courage, a pearl-handled revolver, and a change of underwear with her. She left her children and husband behind–all thanks to an alleged bet. And a song about Amelia Bloomer, an early pro-pants activist, encourages us to fight for our political legs.

Parry’s wordplay is both bright and dark; the word spin means progress and propaganda, freedom and commercialism. She shows us the front and back wheel of every story, the good and bad with ironic bitter sweetness. Parry keeps it real. Steampunky costuming was a spunky sidekick to her monologues. She stepped visually in and out of characters, helping us travel a few miles in other women’s pants. Film also added visual poetry and joie de vivre to the staging.

Overall, it was fascinating watching Brad Hart bowing spokes and thumping away on a bicycle seat as if it was the most natural drum kit in the world. Many of the duets featured Parry taking the low vocal roads while Hart took the higher harmony. Even the music had an unexpected, feminist twist. The rhyme and repetition of the poetry evoked the circular motion of a bike brilliantly. I was happy to tag along on this joyride in the audience.

There is humour and honesty here. As Parry says, the heart is the motor. SPIN moves through the outer spokes to the hub as her performance travels from the historical to the personal–and what you get is inspirational. Though the old adage saying, “It’s not the destination but the journey that counts,” is a touch clichéd, this was a heart-opening performance which reflects back on the past with fresh eyes, and compels us to carry forward with bravery. Parry asks us: why settle for friction when you can choose momentum? This show is about the female quest for autonomy, but it’s also about the magical freedom we all experience when we take off life’s training wheels and fly down unknown avenues under our own steam.

Uno Fest runs until June 1st. Full calendar available on their website.

Leah Callen is a budding poet-playwright-screenwriter at the University of Victoria.

Play cures sweet tooth

The Golden Dragon
Theatre Inconnu until May 18, 2013
Written by Roland Schimmelpfennig
Translated by David Tushingham
Directed by Clayton Jevne

Reviewed by Leah Callen

When I sat down in the theatre, I had a bag of sugar-coated Fuzzy Peaches in my purse–candy that I sucked on as I walked to Fernwood. Little did I know the challenge my vice was about to undergo. The Golden Dragon is an avant-garde fable featuring industrious, ant-like workers in an Asian restaurant where everything is always served hot–whether it’s the Thai soup or the sex slave. Shiny woks and dark holes dot the abstract set as the cooks stir up trouble inside and around the Golden Dragon, a place where humanity hungers but is never satisfied. At times, the actors bang the woks with percussive force that is both dynamic and jarring: beware if you have hearing aids!

The story starts with a young Asian man howling with a fierce toothache. His whole mouth is black, perhaps because of his lifelong craving for candy or for home. His fellow chefs decide to yank out the tooth no matter what the consequence; we are quickly shown how all the little choices we make in life add up like ingredients in a recipe. A series of exploitative relationships play out as people will accept almost anything to relieve their emptiness. There are three kinds of patrons at this metaphorical restaurant: those who dish out pain to subdue their own, those who walk away from it, and those who swallow it.

An inventive retelling of Aesop’s fable of the hardworking ant and the carefree cricket takes such a dark turn that your mind will spin. It could even go so far as to represent capitalism’s exploitation of art. The Golden Dragon’s menu comes with a warning: beware of people who will chew you up like a cherry and spit you out like a stone. It’s all point of view: one man’s rotten tooth is another’s lucky dragon; someone’s pain tastes delicious to another.

With some clever, unexpected casting, actors express nontraditional gender. Michael Romano’s fragility as a stewardess and The Woman in the Red Dress was truly touching (he has a lovely voice). Mily Mumford straddled both innocence and arrogance as the Young Asian Man and the Barbie-Fucker. Blair Moro was the epitome of pathos as the pitiful cricket, his chopstick feeler ripped out by the unfeeling. Bingdon Kinghorn and Catriona Black spiced up the story with enjoyable Yang energy. It was curious how characters punctuate their dramatic speeches by announcing each short pause. It’s both comedic and heartbreaking, as characters hesitate to construct their truth. Is all life a script where we speak the lines we think we should or are we always genuine?

At first fragmented and unrelated, the scenes link eventually in heart-stopping ways. The real and surreal mix as the playwright heats everyone up in his paper wok. I just wish there was more of a hook at the beginning. The deceivingly prosaic set-up tries the patience somewhat. At first the fable came across as cute when it was anything but; the production builds up to beautiful choreography that is physical poetry.

Theatre Inconnu productions always stir up the audience emotionally and psychologically. The Golden Dragon challenges us to ask ourselves: are you a caged, self-destructive cricket or an angry, sadistic ant? It’s a warning to not fall into either of those holes. And after watching what happens to those who indulge their cravings, I think this play cured me of my candy addiction. For now.

Leah Callen is a poet-playwright-screenwriter graduating with a BFA any second now at the University of Victoria.

Anniversary play inhabits past and present

Ray Frank: The Girl Rabbi of the Golden West
A 150th Anniversary Play
Written by Jennifer Wise
Directed by Liza Balkan
at Congregation Emanu-El Synagogue
Workshop Production, April 11, 2013

Reviewed by Leah Callen

My first honest-to-God reaction was: ooh, good title! Then I was amazed that I was watching a play about the real-life spectacle of a woman preaching at a synagogue back in 1895, inside the actual synagogue where it all happened.

Stratford, Ontario, actor and director Liza Balkan directed The Girl Rabbi of the Golden West, written by University of Victoria Associate Professor Jennifer Wise. 

The Hebrew Ladies’ Association is all a flutter about a female rabbi taking the helm at their synagogue. But who is this controversial Ray Frank? Is she a man-woman? Is she a preacher or a performer, a show-girl or a prophet of Israel? Will this Hebrew cowgirl really preach about heartthrobs of Israel or Milton or Shakespeare? Is she really *shudder* an actress? The newspapers of the day compared Ray Frank to Confucius, Moses, Buddha and Christ. In reality, she refused to be ordained to avoid taking orders, to have the freedom to speak her conscience. She was simply a gifted preacher.

The female characters in this play giggle and swoon as enthusiastically about suffrage as romance, deal with the money while the men argue; one even reads tarot cards. They persuade the men to give this female rabbi the unheard honour of leading the congregation at Yom Kippur, the holiest night in their religion. Despite gender expectations of the day, this crew was pretty forward thinking and pretty cool. In a clever stroke, the actresses switched into male roles with a simple costume change. The theme of this play was equality and the staging suited it. It was also exciting that the play took advantage of the whole building. I was seated in the balcony and had an actress sing right in front of me, as if I were time travelling to the past with her.

The build-up to Frank’s arrival stretched out a bit, but overall I enjoyed the verve of the star-struck actresses. Their characterizations were human. At first, the gender of the spiritual superstar is left a mystery. When Ray preaches, she surprises her fans with stage fright, far from the theatrics they’re expecting. I found it moving, seeing the past converge with the present as Canadian College of Performing Arts graduate Adriana Revalli channelled the feminist preacher from the actual altar of the synagogue, menorahs alight as she spoke. Frank’s message was an end to prejudice. She sees God in the forests and in art, and she makes a poetic prophecy that in the future, their “daughters will sing from the Torah.” The scene celebrated diversity and tolerance.

In the play, Ray Frank calls the synagogue a jewel in the city of Victoria that sparkles with enlightened minds and liberal hearts. But her presence polishes the place and casts “a radiant, golden light over this congregation,” helping others to see their own value. She encourages the women to go for more education, and the men to higher ambitions, for everyone to turn over new leaves. She made people “feel.” Samuel D. Schultz went on to become Canada’s first Jewish judge after she lit him up with the spirit, literally pitching ideas and a baseball to him.

For me, the highlight of the show occurred with the cast’s heartfelt folksong in Hebrew, Shalom chaverim: “Peace, friends, till we meet again.” It was gorgeous; Revalli’s vibrato itself was like warm honey. Is it strange to say it made me wish I was Jewish? I wished I knew the words and could join in as the audience harmonized with the cast. It was a gift to hear.

As I was leaving the synagogue, a young Jewish woman next to me rejoiced that the members would finally be able to fix a crack in the building with donations from the evening. Wise’s play made me appreciate this spiritual home, so I was glad to hear it. I really hope Emanu-El will keep shining in our city.

Leah Callen is an aspiring poet-playwright-screenwriter studying at the University of Victoria.

Good Grief! Someone Get These Kids Some Ice Cream

You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown
The Phoenix Theatre
Based on the comic strip “Peanuts” by Charles M. Schulz
Book, Music, and Lyrics by Clark Gesner
Directed by Fran Gebhard
Ends March 23

Reviewed by Leah Callen

From the first puffy cloud, there was something unsettling about this musical take on the Peanuts gang. As the characters sang, “You’re a good man, Charlie Brown,” they took turns slinging playful insults at him. Freud would have a field day with this play. The story is a strange sundae with childlike cheer and rousing musical numbers layered on top of existential angst. Characters struggle against childlike melancholy in the pursuit of happiness, as each ice cream scoop in their lives falls off the cone to the sidewalk. As Charlie suffers from unrequited love pangs for the Little Red-Haired Girl and bangs his head against a tree, Sally sees the futility in skipping, and Linus’s addiction to his blue blanket causes a full-blown Busby Berkeley-esque intervention. Lucy charges Charlie to console him, reminding us that friendship costs.

Like the comic strip upon which it is based, the story runs in a series of vignettes. The striking lighting, costumes, and set had a fantastic, surreal feel. Their sculpted, slick wigs reminded me of the homicidal, plasticine-haired people in the film Heavenly Creatures, a nice touch since these cartoon children are a strong mix of bitter and sweet. Live musical accompaniment on a grand piano, the energetic choreography, and musical numbers ranging from operatic to jazzy were the sprinkles and cherry on this musical treat.

Kale Penny sang with gentle artistry as the frustrated Charlie Brown. My childhood crush on dramatic, intellectual Schroeder remained intact.   Derek Wallis wore that wig and conducted the rest of the cast masterfully in the number “Beethoven Day,” a staggered chorus piping out the composer’s Fifth–pure magic. Francis Melling played Linus like a depressed Buddha who is under-appreciated.

Kevin Eade’s Snoopy was a howl, exposing the dark underbelly of the cartoon canine as he confesses his secret desire to bite someone. He was the cool, aloof guy in the pack, a beagle beatnik. I really just wanted to pet his furry head. Snoopy’s suppertime serenade was sung with charismatic soul, like a puppy version of the Rum Tum Tugger. And Snoopy’s flying doghouse scene, as he cursed the Red Baron, was a highlight.

This play has a one-dimensional take on female characters, even for cartoons. Lucy and Sally are written as overbearing princesses constantly bullying others. In a classic scene, Tea Siskin as Lucy perches on Schroeder’s piano like a frilly barfly, trying to make him into the man of her dreams–every man’s nightmare. Christie Stewart was a spring as tightly wound as her yellow ringlets in the role of Sally. Both actresses are clearly talented singers. However, the intentional helium-squeak in their voices was a gimmick that wore thin for me; it only added to shrillness of their characterization. It limited them from truly showing off their voices while singing and I, frankly, worried about their vocal cords. The male leads did not have to suffer the same vocal gymnastics.

Athletic, forthright, Peppermint Patty, played by spritely Veronique Piercy, was the one female role that could have been a refreshing contrast to the stereotyping, but she never got to be centre-stage. I really wish she had. As amusing and imaginative as the play was, the story seemed to be less about Charlie and more of a comment on gender. This could be very clever if not for the sexist overtones. After a while, I was silently wishing Snoopy would lose control and bite someone. This version of the famous comic is a cynical one, but the song and dance are the delightful chocolate sauce that sweeten the bananas.


Leah Callen is a budding poet-playwright-screenwriter studying at the University of Victoria.