Review: Alien Creature: a visitation from Gwendolyn MacEwen (Theatre Passe Muraille)

A “marvelous performance” by Beatriz Pizano, now on stage in Toronto

On Wednesday I saw Alien Creature: a visitation from Gwendolyn MacEwen at Theatre Passe Muraille. Linda Griffiths wrote the play in 1990, and it’s actually quite depressing how relevant and topical it is 27 years later. Not that the play is depressing; just how little the challenges of living as an artist in Toronto have changed.

Gwendolyn MacEwen (1941-1987) was a Canadian poet and novelist. If you’re not familiar with her work—I wasn’t—you can read a few of her poems here. The play isn’t really a biography. It’s a story about MacEwen told in the voices of two artists, MacEwen and Griffiths. The language is beautiful, evocative of MacEwen’s artistic spirit, her pragmatism, and self-deprecating humour.

Beatriz Pizano is phenomenal as MacEwen. Based on photos, she even looks the part with long dark hair and khol-rimmed eyes. The dialogue and mood shift quickly from almost dreamy (when the subject is mystical) to down-to-earth (when MacEwen tells us about the financial difficulties of life as a writer, living in a dark basement because rents keep increasing). How are artists supposed to live? As MacEwan puts it, “Just because I am a poet doesn’t mean I don’t like light coming through the window like everyone else.”

She laments the loss of  “…those magic women, alien creatures…” the women in their long, flowing velvet clothes and big necklaces. She says there used to be so many of us. MacEwen was part of the vibrant young literary scene in the early 60s. By the mid 80s she was poor and fairly isolated. An ‘alien creature’.

However, I had a mixed reaction to this production overall. On the one hand, I loved Pizano’s performance and Griffiths’ script. On the other, the production felt preachy. There were magic tricks incorporated into the play, but some of them were almost glossed over because things were moving so fast. I had already figured out that she was a magic woman, I didn’t really need the tricks.

The entire play felt too fast to me. The run time is 80 minutes, but in my opinion it would be fine if it ran for 85 or 90. I would have liked it if transitions were a bit slower, if I had a few more seconds to enjoy something before moving on.

The Director’s Notes mention light and dark twice. The lighting was obviously designed to emphasis this, but I found it distracting. There were times that it was so dark that I really couldn’t see what was happening on the stage. There were numerous moments when Pizano’s face was lit on one side. It felt as if the lighting was saying “Get it? Get it?” as though the director didn’t trust the audience.

Still, I recommend seeing Alien Creature for the beauty of the language, for Pizano’s marvelous performance, and for the subject matter.


Photo of Beatriz Pizano by Tanja Tiziana