‘The Shape of Home – Songs in Search of Al Purdy’ at Toronto's Crow's Theatre

Created by: Frank Cox-O’Connell, Beau Dixon, Hailey Gillis, Marni Jackson, Raha Javenfar, Andrew Penner.

Dahlia Katz

Dave Rabjohn

The players ambled into the space, resembling a 60’s era Riverboat coffee house, and plunked themselves down as if they were a family meeting around the kitchen table. Such was the casual opening of ‘The Shape of Home’ – a ‘song cycle’ of Al Purdy’s life and work. Presented by Crow’s Theatre and Festival Players, the casual opening reflects much of Purdy’s poetic style.

The strength of this production comes from the collaboration of the cast of talented musicians in experimenting with Purdy’s literary works.

Al Purdy had a long and varied career and is often considered Canada’s unofficial poet laureate. Born near Prince Edward County in Ontario, he often wrote about the land in his home province and other parts of Canada. Living a hardscrabble life, he jumped among a number of working-class jobs while continuing to write with little early success. Success came later and Purdy became partly responsible for a coalition of Canadian writers during an early rise of prominent Can-lit.

This production poignantly observes the various highs and lows of his life and career. Each of the performers/creators invokes different parts of his personality while using his writings to create powerful music. Opening with gorgeous acapella harmonies, the musicians then took turns with a variety of instruments, solos, and duets. Beau Dixon was compelling with his signature harmonica. Raha Javanfar also invoked some haunting lyrics with her signature violin work.

Moving through the diverse parts of Purdy’s life, humour is marked as many of his works have comic elements. He was also very self-deprecating as personified brilliantly in a scene by Frank Cox-O’Connell where he demurely performs an embarrassing piece of doggerel. Cox-O’Connell was also particularly poignant in his piece about loading bags of dried cow’s blood. Hailey Gillis has a soaring and moving voice in many of the stunning duets. Andrew Penner displayed amazing diversity with a variety of instruments and performances.

The relaxed set design, by Steve Lucas, displayed a variety of instruments installed on the wall from tubas to a base drum eight feet above the floor. What became fascinating was that every instrument was used in the performance – they were not just window-dressing which gave the production integrity.

After building his ‘castle in the woods,’ an A-frame cottage near a small lake in Prince Edward County, Purdy’s success grew and a number of emerging Canadian writers began to visit and gather – sort of a Canadian version of an Algonquin roundtable. Margaret Atwood, Dennis Lee and Irving Layton were among them as was Milton Acorn. These academic meetings were tempered by some raucous nights of drinking and arguing as displayed in a riotous drunken scene with Acorn.

With a casual and colloquial tone, Purdy became one of Canada’s best storytellers and this was fully on display with ‘The Shape of Home.’ This production was magnificent in, through brilliant musicianship, echoing Purdy’s ability to perceive the universal in the Canadian commonplace.

‘The Shape of Home – Songs in Search of Al Purdy’
Performers and creators – Frank Cox-O’Connell, Beau Dixon, Hailey Gillis, Marni Jackson, Raha Javenfar, Andrew Penner.
Director – Frank Cox-O’Connell
Set Design – Steve Lucas
Sound Design – Steafan Hannigan

Production runs through September 25, 2022.
Tickets at www.crowstheatre.com

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