I have never been particularly drawn to his poetry and went into THE SHAPE OF HOME, Songs in Search of Al Purdy with some apprehension. Presented by Crow’s Theatre and Festival Players, this whimsical piece of musical theatre was significantly more compelling than I expected, and offered a way into his work that surprised and delighted me.
Toiling in isolation throughout lockdown, this team of performers—Frank Cox-O’Connell, Beau Dixon, Hailey Gillis, Raha Javanfar, Andrew Penner—and dramaturg Marni Jackson, have set Purdy’s poems to music. Incorporating fragments of his correspondence, the piece is structured around the key events of Purdy’s life and career, with this team’s collaborative process as a framing device.
The music is playful and folksy, a richly arranged series of Bluegrass melodies. With thrilling momentum, we’re propelled forward, and yet the show allows for moments of stillness and reflection. The practical instruments serve as clever, world-building props as well.
Throughout, Purdy’s salt of the earth, working class vibe resonates. We are pulled through a series of menial jobs, the worst of which—stacking bags of dried cow blood—is conveyed with grotesque precision. From his early days, hopping train boxcars in a cross-country adventure, to his eventual rise to CanLit royalty, we discover his coarse, haunting insights.
Purdy’s poetry conveys a tangible sense of place and texture, invites us to unpack mundane experiences, our relationship to environments, and wrestle with their meaning. His ego well in check, he affectionately pokes fun at his earliest poetic attempts, hilariously conveyed here in a timid recitation that captures the naive, awkward grasping towards flights of artistic fancy.
With dynamic use of the space, director Cox-O’Connell creates an intimate, communal atmosphere. Steve Lucas’ set design is understated yet wholly evocative. Rough-hewn wood paneling lines the back wall. Noah Feaver’s light creeps through the cracks. A strategically placed ladder helps conjure the iconic A-frame cottage on Roblin Lake—built by Purdy, his wife Eurithe, and fellow poet Milton Acorn.
The performers are so perfectly themselves while also evoking the essence of Purdy, as if he exists across time and space, inhabiting each of them. From the spectacle of barfights, swilled beer and overturned tables, to the quiet loneliness of a mother’s disappointment and death, there is a such thrilling urgency to every moment here.
Whether you love Purdy’s work or have struggled to connect to it, this serves as a loving tribute to his legacy. THE SHAPE OF HOME is cozy, often rowdy, sometimes poignant and thoroughly persuasive.