Fresh off of their incredible run with the Festival Players of Prince Edward County, Crow’s Theatre has brought The Shape of Home, Songs in Search of Al Purdy home to roost at Streetcar Crowsnest theatre in Toronto. The Shape of Home is a stunning song-cycle telling the story of Al Purdy’s life through his poetry and letters. Created by Frank Cox-O’Connell, Beau Dixon, Hailey Gillis, Marni Jackson, Raha Javanfar, and Andrew Penner, The Shape of Home is a must-see night of music and performance.
The Shape of Home is unique in that it is performed by its creators: Frank Cox-O’Connell (who also directs the piece), Beau Dixon, Hailey Gillis, Raha Javanfar, and Andrew Penner. I enjoy how the piece starts off with them sitting around a table, it looks like a brainstorming session waiting to happen. Except what we get to see is the result of their actual virtual brainstorming during lockdown. They inject the dialogue with their own emails which they exchanged while conceiving the piece, which adds a personal touch to the performance. Like Purdy, they were stuck in a place they didn’t particularly want to be in, but were learning to make the most of it. It’s not a shock that they related to a man who spent the majority of his writing years isolated in an A-Frame cabin in the woods.
The music they created for The Shape of Home is intoxicating. I dare you to not bob your head or tap your toes to the music; I can assure you, you won’t be able to help yourself. With songs ranging from folk to blues to swing, they match the tone and matter of Purdy’s poetry perfectly. I certainly hope that they’ll be able to record this amazing show, I immediately found myself clamouring for a cast-album so I can relive their magical performance. I liked the idea that everyone took on different poems, and thus different aspects of Purdy’s life to explore. They mention that one of the poems they looked at about Owen Roblin was a 30 page long-poem, and yet they still managed to get to the heart of it and create a beautiful song; I’m sure this was no easy task! There was a part of me that was so entranced by the music, I almost forgot that these were not originally meant as song lyrics; the whole performance just felt so natural.
I loved how they talked about Purdy’s well-known Canadian Author compatriots, making jokes about Leonard Cohen’s singing and Margaret Atwood getting upset because Purdy called her an academic. Al Purdy really did run in a circle of the cream of the crop of Canadian Literature. Part of me wonders how many incredible works have been written, or at least thought of, in that A-Frame Cabin in Prince Edward County. I’m grateful that Purdy and his life and works are getting the kind of recognition they are now; his life and struggles are proof that we all can chase our dreams.
The instruments hanging on the wood panelled walls makes for a practical and eye-catching background for the performance. Not a single instrument is left untouched, and what I thought was the most impressive is how many instruments each performer could play! They’d often be switching guitars with one another or taking their turns sitting down at the piano or drums; no one was limited to simply one instrument. Their voices gave me goosebumps from the first haunting harmony to the last.
The Shape of Home is a perfect way to become enthralled with Al Purdy’s poetry if you haven’t read it, or to experience it in a whole new way if you’re already a fan. Brought to life by such talented artists, it is truly wonderful to witness. It is only at Crow’s Theatre for a very limited time, so catch it now before it leaves September 25th. For information (including a link to a few of the songs) and tickets visit: The Shape of Home – Crow’s Theatre (crowstheatre.com)
Photo by Dahlia Katz: (l to r) Andrew Penner, Raha Javanfar, Frank Cox-O’Connell, Hailey Gillis, Beau Dixon