Review: Theatre Inconnu play portrays Canada's Sylvia Plath

Alien Creature: A Visitation from Gwendolyn MacEwen

Where: Theatre Inconnu

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When: To March 7

Rating: 3/5 stars


These days, you don’t hear much about Gwendolyn MacEwen. Yet the late writer (she died in 1987 of alcoholism-related causes) was one of Canada’s best poets.

Her tumultuous life is examined in Alien Creature: A Visitation from Gwendolyn MacEwen. The one-woman show, starring Tannis Perry, is by Linda Griffiths, who’s best known for her play Maggie and Pierre. A recent University of Victoria theatre department grad, Perry (who has returned to the stage after an absence) tackles this difficult role valiantly and with some success.

The 75-minute play won’t be to everyone’s taste — at times, the booze-swilling, self-absorbed MacEwen seems like one of the uber-precocious children one cannot escape from. Still, Griffiths (who succumbed to cancer last year) does capture a woman critics called “Canada’s Sylvia Plath” with complexity and empathy. We get a sense of a talent who burned brightly as a young woman, but ultimately found the hum-drum realities of adulthood didn’t jibe with her wish to exist on a spiritual/artistic plane.

MacEwen found success early — her first book of poems, The Drunken Clock, was published in her late teens. Early photos capture a round-faced, intense-looking woman. Her mother had severe mental problems; her father was alcoholic. Both make brief appearances in Alien Creatures. When she was just 19, MacEwen married flamboyant poet Milton Acorn, a fleeting and disastrous union (the marriage is discussed in the play, but Acorn is not mentioned by name).

We see MacEwen in her basement suite, swigging enthusiastically from a vodka bottle throughout the play. Her various preoccupations are touched upon, for instance, an interest in magic (at one point she slips out of a pair of manacles, Houdini-style) and a fascination with old Egypt (MacEwen fantasizes about being an Egyptian princess).

The sense of the die-hard artist not really cut out for the material world is a central theme. Yet the poetry-spouting MacEwen has mixed feelings about existing in a make-believe realm. At times, she’s defiantly joyous; elsewhere, she’s bitterly aware about living an alcohol-fuelled fantasy.

She’s now very much alone, despite having had two husbands. There are no children. Old friends have dropped her. And MacEwen is practically penniless; she notes her last dinner was a green pepper washed down by booze.

On Thursday night, Perry, dressed in a pale-green hippie blouse, at first delivered a performance that, despite being animated, seemed rather mannered. This relaxed as the show continued — as things drew to a conclusion, we started to believe she was indeed this desperate poet, flirting with the idea of death. A young actor, Perry shows promise in a challenging role that’s not for the faint-hearted.

MacEwen is a perplexing batch of contradictions — almost everything about her life seems a paradox. Capturing this, and making it riveting theatre, is a formidable task.

The play is directed Jocelyne Lamarche, another newly minted UVic graduate, with lighting by Clayton Jevne. Theatre Inconnu’s 2015 new season (which goes by the calendar year) continues with Mike Bartlett’s Cock, If We Were Birds by Erin Shields and a theatrical adaptation of Jack Hodgins’ Spit Delaney’s Island by Charles Tidler.

achamberlain@timescolonist.com

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