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Collectively created song cycle about the beloved poet is equal parts biography, interpretation and fan letter
THE SHAPE OF HOME, SONGS IN SEARCH OF AL PURDY by Frank Cox-O’Connell, Beau Dixon, Hailey Gillis, Marni Jackson, Raha Javanfar and Andrew Penner (Festival Players production presented by Crow’s Theatre). Runs to September 25 at the Streetcar Crowsnest Studio Theatre (345 Carlaw). $45-$65. crowstheatre.com. Rating: NNNN
The Al Purdy revival continues. The poet, who died in 2000, was the subject of Brian D. Johnson’s fine 2015 documentary, Al Purdy Was Here; the Al Purdy Memorial, unveiled in 2008, keeps drawing admirers at Queen’s Park (it’s a shame the Twitter account it inspired seems inactive); the anthology Beyond Forgetting was published in 2018, on the 100th anniversary of his birth; and earlier this season, in the play among men, David Yee immortalized the time in the 1950s when Purdy and fellow poet Milton Acorn were drunkenly building Purdy’s soon-to-be-famous A-Frame home in Prince Edward County, which continues to host artist residencies.
Now comes The Shape Of Home, created by a group of very talented writers/performers/musicians and first staged earlier this year by the Festival Players in PEC itself. It adds music to the story and legend, and gives the production a momentum and energy that mere spoken-word shows seldom attain.
Director Frank Cox O’Connell introduces The Shape Of Home by telling us that the ensemble (Cox O’Connell, Beau Dixon, Hailey Gillis, Raha Javanfar, Andrew Penner and dramaturg Marni Jackson, co-writer of Al Purdy Was Here) began working on the piece during the pandemic. And after the group delivers a haunting a cappella version of Purdy’s Being Alive, they present a patchwork-quilt show – “search” is an apt word in the title – that’s equal parts biography, interpretation, song cycle and fan letter. They also occasionally chronicle their pandemic struggles with isolation, economic uncertainty and artistic inspiration – themes the poems and life suggest as well. And there are quotes and anecdotes about Purdy’s fellow poets, like Irving Layton, Acorn and Margaret Atwood.
While all of these elements might, in other hands, be messy and confusing, The Shape Of Home finds a structure, form and presentation that works beautifully, allowing us to see and hear Purdy’s life and writing in a fascinating way. Cox O’Connell spotlights certain moments – the meeting of Purdy and his future wife Eurithe, for instance, or his depressing return home to Trenton – with care. One of the most haunting images involves a simple white sheet, a guitar and a table, all evocatively lit by Noah Feaver on Steve Lucas’s homey, handsome set. When that same table is turned on its side, it’s the perfect backdrop for a hungover reflection on rejection and jealousy.
What makes the show so special is the way the ensemble uses text, music and performance to create indelible moments. When Cox O’Connell reads some of Purdy’s early, Wordsworth-inspired poetry, the ensemble surrounds him with flowery, gushing sounds, plucking pizzicato evoking the pretentiousness of the poem. When Purdy finds his voice in the breakthrough poem Piling Blood, on the other hand, Andrew Penner’s reading is accompanied by Javanfar’s violin playing, which transitions from Beethoven to something uncertain and atonal.
The performers each play several instruments (Penner and Dixon are practically one-person bands), and sometimes even props are used to create sounds. During the Milton Acorn A-Frame scene, for instance, the actors use their nearly-empty beer glasses as percussion. Lest you think the show is a complete testosterone fest, one of the loveliest moments is a quiet, lyrical duet between Gillis and Javanfar that then morphs into a lively swing number.
The Shape Of Home doesn’t attempt to be the final word on Al Purdy; it suggests, but doesn’t explore in much depth, his family life. And at times it’s hard to keep track of where we are geographically – Purdy moved around the country a lot.
But as a collectively created tribute to one of the country’s most beloved artists, one who asked big universal questions about life, The Shape Of Home is smart, moving and full of soul. It does Purdy proud.