Category Archives: Leah Callen

Actors enhance suspense with slapstick

The 39 Steps
Langham Court Theatre
Directed by Keigh Digby and Cynthia Pronick
Adapted by Patrick Barlow from Alfred Hitchcock and John Buchan
Ends March 23, 2013

Reviewed by Leah Callen

Langham Court’s The 39 Steps is North by Northwest meets Laurel and Hardy. One part old Hollywood and two parts vaudeville, it gives a self-conscious nod to both stage and screen magic.  As the audience got lost in fog and the laughter of the lady next to me ran off the tracks, I flashbacked to knee-slapping pantomimes I saw while growing up in EnglandGorblimey. In fact, I’m typing this review with one hand and sipping Earl Grey with the other.

A falsely accused man-on-the-run escapes into and out of the arms of the wrong women. Richard is dying of bachelor boredom in wartime London when he and a seductive secret agent hit it off with a bang at the theatre. His excitement begins. This production winked at us with charming Hitchcockian allusions, from a bad guy who sports a wig from Psycho to a police chase that exists through the rear window. It would make a fun drinking game, raising a glass each time one of Hitchcock’s movies flashes us – if drinking were allowed in the theatre. One has fun spotting them nonetheless. Film projections were a delightful, theatrical element here; the medium is perfect for a play adapted from a movie. I wish it had been used more throughout.

The play also pokes fun at the limits of theatre with self-destructing props, intentionally missed queues and phones that ring long after they’re answered.  The slapstick made up for some inevitable predictability in plotting for the genre. The tongue-in-cheek approach is the marmalade that makes all the cloak-and-dagger easier to swallow.

The actors wore many fedoras and grew more comfortable with madcap character changes as the play galloped along. Alan Penty played the lead, Richard Hannay, who gets more dashing as he’s chased across countries. Handcuffed against his will to button-faced Pamela, he is forced to face his deepest fear: commitment. In a clever, mute moment, Richard has no choice but to caress her legs with his cuffed hand while she removes her stockings one-by-one, and he holds a sandwich. Talk about restrained appetites. Penty was humorously human as craziness rained down on him.

Karen Brelsford took on the Vertigo-esque challenge of portraying with chameleon ease prim Pamela,  Annabella the spy and man-hungry Margaret. It was fascinating seeing her adapt her energies to match each new wig.  Nick Sepi and Toshik Bukowiecki were masters of quick change, playing everything from the milkman to dancing Nazis. Nick was straight out of Monty Python as he juggled accents and gestures.  He was so hilarious that I wanted to take him home as my dinner guest. Toshik was at ease in both skirts and kilts. He handled outrageous characters with unbelievable naturalism. He was the favourite of the man sitting behind me.

Some transitions were inspired and others a bit clunky, but it’s forgivable since the play is so darn funny. One scene ending featured a train-whistle scream that shifted us into a train car. The choreography that followed was simply brilliant. Hitchcock would be proud. The strobe light effect seemed an unnecessary staging device and just gave me a headache. But overall, this was a successful marriage between theatre and film. I give it two guns up.


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


Love is blind, s***head.

Reasons to be Pretty
@ The Phoenix
Written by Neil Labute
Directed by Christine Willes
Feb 14-23 

Reviewed by Leah Callen

Reasons to be Pretty presents a world where people change relationships as easily as they shed overalls. Here, men and women take swings at each other while searching for their ideal other. Reasons to be Pretty blames women for the superficial desire to look good and men for desiring good-looking women. These characters are caught in a vicious cycle.

The women and men are flip sides of one another, barely skirting the clichés of beauty versus brains. Reese Nielsen as insecure Steph is exactly what she accuses her boyfriend of being: an overbearing know-it-all (who may kill your fish if you push her). Yet, I felt great sorrow for her as she spends the rest of the play taking his casual insult to heart and reinventing herself. In her humble monologue, she tells us she doesn’t have much but she likes what she has and she’s got to protect it. I saw her as a diamond in the rough, her off-the-charts cursing a defense mechanism.

Alberta Holden as the bouncy Carly, the security guard who’s always on the beat, almost becomes the butt of well-read Greg’s jokes. But she confesses a dark vulnerability by flashlight while doing her rounds at the warehouse: beauty comes with perks and pain. Her face is a creep magnet. With team spirit, Alex Frankson plays childish, Just-do-it Kent who skips through life and compares his lover’s eyes to crayon colours.  Robin Gadsby shines as Greg, so thoughtful in his reading list and thoughtless about his girlfriend’s feelings. His thematic T-shirts broadcast the mood of each scene brilliantly. I enjoyed the shocking fistfight between jock and bookworm. Like two oversized children, they duke it out on the playground, but the bully has it coming.

It’s ironic that a play about the superficiality of looks is so visually exciting. We, the audience, become a character in the actors’ mirrors, and we’re told to mind our own business (check out the Phoenix bathrooms at halftime, hint, hint). Moving sets, film projections, and songs like “Bad Romance” set the atmosphere beautifully. The mall scene is full of visual metaphors: the red roses match the bloodstains on Greg’s In Cold Blood T-shirt; the male and female bathroom signs point in opposite directions–all illustrate the relationship war.

The play sometimes stretches things too far. Steph’s unedited rage needs a rewrite. As a woman, I related to both female characters: I’ve had people put down my looks and also been stalked by strangers. Perhaps that’s the female condition in our society–hated and desired. Overall, the play made me happy I’m single.

Why are we so critical when looking in the mirror? As Greg would say, it’s all just packaging. One man’s Venus is another’s regular girl. But, I also believe love should cast a glow on your partner’s face. I agree with Steph: “love is blind, s***head.”


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

An ode to bodies electric

In the Next Room (The Vibrator Play)
@ Theatre Inconnu until March 2/13
Directed by Naomi Simpson
Written by Sarah Ruhl

Reviewed by Leah Callen

Sparks fly in the 1880s when Dr. Givings electrifies women with his revolutionary therapy for hysteria–a vibrator. His wife, Mrs. Givings, is a live wire desperate to plug in to her husband’s secret practice in the next room. But the good Dr. turns her off and turns on the sensitive Mrs. Daldry instead, with a prescription of casual pleasure to put the roses back in her cheeks. Tension builds when Leo, a passionate painter, a robust Mr. Daldry, and a black woman named Elizabeth are drawn into the undercurrent. The play warns: be careful not to over-pet a cat or it might burst into flames.

Watching In the Next Room causes fits of laughter. The actors’ paroxysms were so refreshingly real and unabashed when struck by erotic lightning. Emma Conde hit the high note perfectly as the delicate Mrs. Daldry undressing dutifully. Elizabeth Marsh delivered an emotional climax as the wet nurse, as natural as rain. I was torn by her character being more comfortable in her own skin than the two uptight, white ladies–both touching and stereotypical. James Roney was one hundred percent Bohemian as Leo who wants to immortalize the down-to-earth Elizabeth with a painted halo. Celine Richmond gave a magnetic performance as the midwife, Annie, while Jason Stevens was a forceful whirlwind as Mr. Daldry, who just wants his appetite satisfied. Odile Nelson was a bit of a caricature as the intense Mrs. Givings, but she drove the plot forward with a firm reign and growing pathos. All the while, Julian Cervello basks in the electric halo of his table lamp as Dr. Givings. In a clever lighting maneuver, each time a patient finds sexual enlightenment, they too achieve a golden halo.

I enjoyed the sense of humour in the simultaneous staging. Mrs. Givings pours cups of tea for guests in her rosy living room while her husband strips them down to their basic anatomy in his clinic. When the power goes out, both husband and wife must resort to old-fashioned methods to get by. While Dr. Givings examines an uncomfortable patient in his office, people finger a piano in the living room.

Sarah Ruhl’s wordplay is often hilarious, but she also gets downright poetic. The play questions soulless, mechanical sex. Leo muses that a light without a flame is not divine, and Mrs. Givings prophesies that future fireflies will be electric. The lyrical dialogue of In The Next Room gave me playwright envy. The plot has a darkly comical edge. There’s a fine line between being electrified and electrocuted, between delight and discomfort. These characters marvel at the literal electricity passing between them. However, the true charge comes from within, or as Walt Whitman once dubbed it in his poem I Sing the Body Electric: “the charge of the Soul.” Science has yet to unlock that mystery.

Loosen your corset strings before you go to the theatre: I’m sure you’ll get a buzz out of this daring production.

In the Next Room runs until March 2 at Theatre Inconnu, 1923 Fernwood Road (across from The Belfry). Tickets available for purchase online or over the phone at 250.360.0234.


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


Confessions in a church of desire

Speaking in Tongues
By Andrew Bovell
Directed by Philip Riccio
January 22 – February 24
The Belfry Theatre

Reviewed by Leah Callen

Meet Pete, Jane, Sonja, and Leon. Pete and Jane are married; Sonja and Leon are married. But Pete wants Sonja, and Jane wants Leon. Thus, two one-night stands overlap in time and space in one hotel room. These characters have a lot in common: lovers, lines, and gestures. Their synchronized dancing suggests that everyone dances the same in the dark. But, the strange unison splits eventually, and each coupling ends on a different note.

Speaking in Tongues felt like a seedy service dedicated to desire in the renovated nave of the Belfry, where characters share unholy confessions. Everyone wants someone, to feel something, to light a burnt-out candle to lust or devotion. Driven by desire, they intersect emotionally like a car crash.

As the play unfolds, the irony is that characters confess their feelings freely to drunken strangers, to a note-taking therapist or a cop. A particularly amusing bar scene brews between Peter and Leon as they unbottle their feelings over beer. But, people struggle to face anything head on with their intimate partners. They speak subtext to their spouses by putting themselves in someone else’s brown brogues using metaphorical monologues. These lengthy scenes tried the congregation’s patience somewhat, but were less disorienting than the echoing hotel scene. Scene transitions were sometimes seamless, but each one spoke such a different language that the play overall lacked coherence.

The adrenaline-charged second act shows Valerie trying desperately to reach her husband on a pay phone in the middle of nowhere before she vanishes. New characters piece together her story. Nick was the last to see her alive, and the last to handle her stiletto. Yanna McIntosh’s deer-in-the-headlights panic as Valerie panting in the darkness made my hair stand on end.

The actors fill the shoes of several characters whose lives spill into each other. Richard Clarkin plays the jilted lover, Neil, with gut-wrenching pathos. Hélène Joy gave me chills as the psychopathic Sarah who eats men alive, rubbing one leg over the other slowly like a predatory cricket. Jonathon Goad seduced us with natural ease as the smooth-talking and smooth-haired cop, Leon.

While these characters worship and excommunicate one another casually, the plot undresses the truth: sex has long-term side effects. Our lives continue to overlap long after we leave the hotel room.

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

Three Gods Walk into An Alley . . .

The Good Person of Setzuan
By Bertolt Brecht
Directed by Conrad Alexandrowicz
Set by Simon Farrow
Costumes by Kat Jeffrey

The Phoenix Theatre

Reviewed by Leah Callen

Imagine three gods touring Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, instructing the locals on the path to Enlightenment. In Bertolt Brecht’s play, three aspects of Buddha find no room at any inn in impoverished Setzuan. When Shen Te, a streetwalker who can’t say no, shelters them for the night, they bless her with a financial windfall. However, this gift from the gods unleashes a wealth of suffering when the commandment to do good splits her like lightning.

Now two-faced, her male alter ego, Shui Ta, sells opium secretly in the tobacco shop. Veronique Piercy’s masculine strut as Shui Ta made me crack up. It was terrific. Shen Te also falls for a pilot, Yang Sun, who is equal parts charisma and con with no real desire for a woman to co-pilot his life. Alex Frankson was gutsy in this role; Veronique reacted with the pitiable vulnerability of women who love the wrong men. As this falling angel struggles to protect both her pocketbook and her heart in a corrupt city, we wonder can one pray and also prosper?

The costumes add a rich dimension to this production. Each character bears a corporate logo from Starbucks to Playboy to Enbridge. The only exception is kind-hearted Shen Te who wears a charity logo: the World Wildlife Fund panda. The gods wear prayer beads and backpacks patched with oms and peace signs. Watching the Enlightened Ones wander uncomfortably through the garbage strewn streets in the Water Seller’s dreams was fabulously ironic. Their statue-like headwear gave the actors an otherworldly, idolatrous aura.

After slumming it among mortals, they too move from the mystical to material. I’ll never look at Facebook the same way again. This twist was a clever spin on what could have been clichéd: a prostitute with a heart of gold or bashing religion for every evil under the sun.

The cast was an amusing, vivacious ensemble. Characters broke out into song unexpectedly which gave relief like a water bottle on a hot day. There were some striking, surreal moments as characters literally fell for opium and workers were cut down like trees. I loved how Derek Wallis as Shu Fu gestured and spoke with choreographed precision as his mind calculates. I was torn about Brecht’s ending — which was both cheeky and frustrating. It struck me as more of a punchline to a “three gods walk into an alley” joke than a philosophical finale. I didn’t know whether to laugh or gasp.

No one in this story wants to see the truth except for our heroine whose heart breaks because of it. Even the gods turn blind third eyes to injustice. Watching this play, I stepped into Shen Te’s shoes before a mirror and asked myself: How good am I?

The show runs until Saturday, November, 24.

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

The Hungry Heart Motel: Where Guests Die of Laughter

The Mystery of the Hungry Heart Motel
Written and performed by Chris Wilson and Peter Carlone
Phoenix Theatre, 8 p.m. Until Oct. 20

The comedy pair Peter N’ Chris, UVic alumni Peter Carlone and Chris Wilson, take audiences for an energetic ride in The Mystery of the Hungry Heart Motel. The play is a creepy Nancy and Drew murder romp, where two actors take turns being possessed by hilarious characters.

A self-conscious satire where slow-motion murder makes you guffaw and blood shoots out in shiny confetti, The Hungry Heart Motel spoofs horror classics like Psycho and The Shining. One can’t help cracking up at Chris’s Jack Nicholson impressions and Peter’s regrets about hiding from the murderer in a frozen maze. It’s clever, witty, and plays on larger-than-life archetypes.

Few props haunt the stage, but I never missed them. There’s an interactive, improvisational feel as the actors morph into human showerheads or break out into spontaneous sound effects. Clearly, the play is well choreographed. Peter and Chris are in perfect synch from their Sesame Street-style boy band moves to a Scooby Doo-inspired chase scene that knocked my socks off. Jinkies!

This play knows it’s a play as characters comment casually on backstory and seem aware of how ambient sounds heighten their fear. The foggy void on stage makes space for the limitless imagination. We even get to see the Heebie Jeebies, Chris’ fears personified, in a dynamic use of lighting and acting. The plot almost takes a back seat to the characters who explore the stage together like an overactive imagination. Still, just when we think we know where the road is curving, the plot takes a sharp, three-dimensional jump to the right.

There’s something for everyone in the show: physical comedy for some and wordplay for others. The snappy dialogue had me feeling I was part of a looped laugh track. I giggled like a little girl throughout. But I’m not totally convinced that the old codger/storyteller needed to lead us into the creepy tale. Yes, he sets the tone and invites us to follow, adding layers during a physical rewind of the story later, but the play could have revved up without him. However, the pained painter, who feels more alive than ever while dying, made the play for me.

The title track from Bruce Springsteen bursts in and out, a thematic trigger for murder. It will haunt you for hours later! Murderer and victims all have a hungry heart in one way or another, even if it’s just for clean bedsheets. My main complaint is I didn’t get to clap enough at the end. This show left me hungry for more Peter n’ Chris.

Leah Callen is a fourth-year writing student


Birdwatching revisits unnerving relationship

Blackbird, the preview
Theatre Inconnu (Oct. 5 through 20)
Written by David Harrower
Directed by Graham McDonald

Reviewed by Leah Callen

Blackbird, written by David Harrower, is a psychological drama in which two people flirt dangerously with the past behind a closed door. Una, who lost her virginity at the tender age of twelve to middle-aged Ray, confronts him in a room fifteen years later. Based on true-life sex crimes, Blackbird comes across as both disturbing and genuine.

Two utilitarian tables echo the twin beds in the hotel room where the couple once had sex; fast food wrappers litter the floor. Una contorts mentally before her abuser as they re-taste the past. The tension that binds her to him is palpable. Ray still remembers the subtle cues that trigger Una. He hums and haws and acts small to draw her closer.

Una’s body language conflicts with her words. While she lectures him on social codes, she perches on a table with her legs open to him. I found the pose unnerving. Jess Amy Shead plays Una with a Lolita-esque undertone that feels authentic and unsettling as the character flutters between anger, fear, disgust, and titillation. Something black in Una wants to be seen by this slouching Svengali, by the stare that first drew her in. She’s torn between the desire to poke his eyes out and to be stripped by his passive gaze.

Ray, played with creepy casualness at the preview by Ted Phythian but since replaced by Director McDonald, spends the play watching his bird, looking for a way to seduce her again. He resists his natural instinct for a second or two, but it kicks in. Her appearance makes him thirsty; she reacts with a thirst that seems unquenchable. He’s trained her to sing the tune he wants; he’s the classic predator who only feels sorry for himself.

The plot unfolds with rough, verbal foreplay. An old ease/unease creeps into the atmosphere like a match being struck. What’s most shocking is Una’s choice to stay in this metaphorical cage with Ray. She grimaces as she applies lip gloss, putting up with his poison. She could leave at any point, but there’s so much she needs to say, to shout out into the fluorescent flicker. A blackout jolts us into Una’s shoes. In the dark, we feel her fear and vulnerability on a primal level as she struggles on stage. I could not quite believe in the garbage play-fight between the two characters, designed to show the childlike level at which they meet.

Perhaps playwright Harrower was riffing on the old folk tune If I Were A Blackbird. This play could be a dark twist on that romantic sadness: a maiden abandoned by her first love, wishing to follow him as a blackbird wherever he sails. Unfortunately, there is nothing romantic about what Ray did to Una. The little girl just wanted hugs and chocolate, but he assaulted and abandoned her in the middle of nowhere. He was imprisoned for a short time, but we wonder if Una will ever be released. This play takes an unflinching look at sexual relationships, at the people we think we love but for our own good should let go.

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

Seeing Red at the Belfry

Red by John Logan
Directed by Michael Shamata
Until October 14/12

Seeing Red

Reviewed by Leah Callen

Red, The Belfry’s latest offering, highlights the relationship between Master and Initiate in the infernal chapel of artistic genius. Ken, a young artist, starts out as the assistant to the “high priest of Modern art,” Mark Rothko. We enter his inner sanctum where paint pots, ashtrays, and booze bathe in red light. It’s Luciferian, edgy and brooding. Like an alchemist, Rothko mixes paints and blows smoke as scarlet vapours rise around him, repeating his personal mantra: Rembrandt, Rothko, and Turner. Ken, his green assistant, pleads “pray for me.”

Rothko gazes out on the audience, appraising us as his masterpieces in progress. He urges Ken to be human, to have compassion for art. It lives and breathes, vulnerable to injury like a blind child in a room full of knives. He worries his murals will never forgive him if he hangs them in the Four Seasons Restaurant at the Seagram Building – his latest commission.

Red and black are the emotional colours of Rothko’s art — and playwright of John Logan’s words. Light and dark, intellect and heart, even Santa Claus and Satan have a tug of war. Ken and Rothko take turns embodying opposite energies. Ken tends to practical matters such as mopping, canvas construction and take-out food while Rothko guards the sacred tasks of selecting the perfect mood music, pigment, and cigarette. The scenes are dark as murder, but full of wry humour. I laughed out loud more than once, was touched by other moments. Red is very human.

At the heart of Red lies Rothko’s inability to connect. His compassion is towards his canvas. Even as Ken shares a traumatic memory, Rothko seems unable to offer real comfort. The two keep their physical distance throughout the play until the end.

At first, I resisted Rothko’s art. I’ve never been a huge fan of Abstract Expressionist anything. The set replicas invoked post-traumatic memories of Voices of Fire from my childhood. Curiously, the characters’ conversation about the canvases altered my point of view; I left appreciating the symbolism and movement in Rothko’s work. Music added a sweet touch to this production. When artist and apprentice share a canvas frantically, the overture from the Marriage of Figaro runs up and down in the background, foreshadowing that the servant is going to rise to the Master.

Actor Oliver Becker channeled Rothko with realism. I loved his feistiness and honesty. The character begs us to be fully human, to embrace our black as well as our red. There’s an inevitable narrative arc. The bond between master and servant builds; Ken, played energetically by Jameson Matthew Parker, grows a spine. Still, the actors pull off the transition without steering into cliché. I wanted to follow them as they worked on each other like canvases.

In spite of Mozart, I walked home humming Black and Red from Les Miz. Red: the colour of desire, black: the colour of despair. The themes in Red and Rothko’s art are universal.

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