Tying together playful original music and the haunting verses of Al Purdy, The Shape of Home is poignant, at times painful, and always shimmering. (There’s a distinct and welcome similarity to the folk musical Once.) Here, Purdy’s ghost haunts the Crow’s intimate studio playing space; his words wrap around table legs and banjo necks; his rhythm punctuates every solo, every bass line. The corps of artists onstage serve as a mouthpiece for Purdy’s existential restlessness — and the effect is simply magic.
Loosely, The Shape of Home is a love letter to Purdy and a record of #theaTO from the depths of pandemic. Five theatre artists — Frank Cox-O’Connell, Beau Dixon, Hailey Gillis, Raha Javanfar, and Andrew Penner — gather virtually to set Purdy’s poems to music. They email each other, lamenting lockdowns and aloneness, missing each other, sharing snippets of songs and fragmented text. “I hate theatre,” says Dixon at one point, funnily, when he recalls a time where burnout nearly got the best of him as a busy Toronto actor. The music that emerges from The Shape of Home is mostly bluegrass-ish, referencing the musical stylings of Canadian folk bands like Hey Rosetta! and at times more ethereal artists like Ingrid Michaelson and Sara Bareilles.
After a stint in Prince Edward County — a locale important to the myth of Al Purdy — The Shape of Home may now be in Toronto, but the production seems to pay homage to the County’s friendly, rural atmosphere. Blooming within the cozy, wood-panelled Crow’s studio, its walls lined by instruments and filled to the brim with enormous music, The Shape at Home is nearly a perfect pearl of a project, earnest and raw. (That smart set design is by Steve Lucas.) The musical performances from the cast are robust, velvety, and endlessly pretty, calling on everything from a violin to a euphonium to evoke the lasting melancholy of Purdy’s words. It seems every performer plays every instrument, and even difficult close vocal harmonies come easily in moments of duet. Pizzicato moments on violin twinkle against gruff runs on electric guitar — the musicianship, and especially the arrangements of the songs created by the group, stuns.
Some songs are more memorable than others — Purdy’s rhyming poems lend themselves better to song than his less structured work, generally — but the overall effect achieved by the musical moments seems to be the arc of Purdy’s life and its swells, its cracks, its triumphs, and its storms. We follow Purdy through these ups and downs, these near-constant moves across Canada, these multiple lovers and children. We sigh with relief when Al finds solace in the quietness of Prince Edward County, a moment of earned satisfaction and rest. The Shape of Home feels like a well-paced life in miniature, with a stunning emotional spine — there was nary a dry eye on opening night. Marni Jackson’s dramaturgy shines through the piece, complementing Cox-O’Connell’s keen direction (he’s got a great voice, too). Lindsay Forde’s costumes are lovely, digging into 2022 trends and rural Ontario plaid alike, and adeptly echoing the set’s folksy atmosphere and gentle lighting (by Noah Feaver).
It’s a simple night at the theatre, The Shape of Home, but the craft within the project shines, and what seem to be completely real moments of friendship between artists onstage are beyond touching. See it, then read up on your Purdy; you’ll want to.
The Shape of Home runs at Crow’s Theatre through September 25. Tickets are available here.