If you listened hard enough, you could almost hear the prose of Gwendolyn MacEwen ringing between the brick houses on the streets of Toronto.
Theatre Passe Muraille, a Toronto theatre company, hosted Alien Creature: A Visitation from Gwendolyn MacEwen from January 12 to February 5. Written by Linda Griffiths, the production was inspired by the life of MacEwen. Prior to the show’s opening, MacEwen fans thought they would never see Alien Creature again, since the production has not been performed in almost fifteen years
MacEwen was a Toronto-based author and poet fascinated with Egypt, magic, and the afterlife. She grew up in High Park and was first published at 17. She used her poems to escape her family life, as her mother spent most of her life institutionalized in the city and her father suffered from alcoholism.
Griffiths captured MacEwen’s prose in a one-woman show 15 years ago. Years later, director Jani Lauzon revived Griffiths’ well-known play to cast Beatriz Pizano as the author.
The play began with the haunting sounds of a violin coupled with smoke and shadows projected onto the brick walls of the set. The bleak set emulated the scene of a basement, reminding audiences that MacEwen spent her life residing in a variety of them. Pizano then appeared from the smoke and said, “You came.” Dressed in a ruffled blouse, a blazer with shoulder pads, and MacEwen’s signature kohl eyeliner, it was as if MacEwen herself stood in front of the small audience.
The opening scene began when a flame erupted out of Pizano’s hand, which persisted for the duration of the performance. With help from the lighting and set designer, Trevor Schwellnus, Pizano entered the stage appearing young. But the lighting brought out MacEwen’s age during her monologue, switching from the young, hopeful author to an artist entering the experimental 1960s literary scene.
Pizano then retrieved a bottle of vodka (MacEwen’s drink of choice) from a chest, which also remained on stage throughout the performance. The audience was promptly introduced to MacEwen’s financial issues, as Pizano re-enacted the time MacEwen had to beg a bank manager for a loan. When he declined, she ran home, gathered her 20 published books and put them in front of him. She would not let her value as an author be undermined by capitalism.
Parts of the play explored MacEwen’s self-sufficiency. But MacEwen’s independence plummeted as property value in Toronto increased. As house prices inflated, so did MacEwen’s rent, which pushed her deeper into isolation. Pizano would not let the audience forget that MacEwen’s dinners consisted of two fried green peppers and a bottle of vodka.
But money was not MacEwen’s only concern. The production also explored the relationship between MacEwen and her mother. In a particularly powerful scene, the audience learned of how, at the mere age of five, MacEwen was blamed for her mother’s suicidal thoughts. A female voice slipped in and out of the theatre’s speakers, “I watched you spread your legs for those men on Queen Street, you whore.” Her mother’s voice let audience members know that she was able to see MacEwen on the streets of Queen from the window of the institution she stayed in. MacEwan would get phone calls from her mother saying she had watched her the night before.
Pizano then dove into the men of MacEwen’s life. MacEwen married a 42-year-old man when she was only 19—a relationship that only lasted five months. Pizano captured MacEwen’s thoughts on her sexual relationships and expressed the lack of shame she felt for experimenting with so many men in her life. She then lamented about dying without a husband or children.
In light of her hardships, MacEwen’s confidence depleted. Constantly having to justify her value, MacEwen struggled with self-worth as a writer, driving her to drink herself to death at the age of 46. Her fragile state was one that Pizano captured well.
The play ended with Pizano holding a glass of vodka that turned into sand as she poured the contents onto the stage floor. A single spotlight shone on Pizano. As MacEwen reached closer to death, the spotlight became smaller, symbolizing MacEwen’s diminishing light in dark situations, and an evident loss of hope. Just before the stage lights went black, Pizano recited the last line of MacEwen’s poem, “Past and Future Ghosts”: “I’m starting to haunt you, I’m starting right now.”
Overall, Alien Creature: A Visitation from Gwendolyn MacEwen offered a thoughtful and respectful meditation on MacEwen’s life.