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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.




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.


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.