Factory Theatre/among men, written by David Yee, directed by Nina Lee Aquino, Factory Mainspace, Apr. 23 to May 15. Tickets here.
David Yee’s new play among men is heady stuff, but then his protagonists are two of Canada’s most iconic modern poets. Not surprisingly, among men is as biographical as it is mythical, as intellectual as it is emotional, and as human as it is philosophical.
Al Purdy (1918–2000), performed by Ryan Hollyman, and Milton Acorn (1923-1986), played by Carlos Gonzalez-Vio, are given larger than life personas. Director Nina Lee Aquino starts them off high in full-frontal assault, and there they stay. As my guest remarked, the play is wall-to-wall testosterone.
It is 1959 and Acorn is helping Purdy build his A-frame cottage, which the latter started with his wife Eurithe two years earlier. Just how famous is that rustic cabin on Robin Lake, in Ameliasburgh, Prince Edward County? The Al Purdy A-Frame Association was set up to not only save the cottage, but to turn it into a writer’s retreat.
It seems that everyone who was anyone in Canadian arts and letters ended up visiting Al and Eurithe, and being fed her endless supply of spaghetti. That A-frame is, in short, considered one of the most hallowed shrines in Canadian literature.
It is the A-frame you see first as you enter the theatre. In fact, Joanna Yu’s massive set takes your breath away with its towering walls, exposed rafters, planked floor, wood-burning stove, and a raft of empty beer bottles. This is a play where the environment is as important as the characters, gilded by Michelle Ramsay’s clever pin-spot lighting and Christopher Stanton’s arresting soundscape, the latter comprising ambient sounds and original rock n’ roll infused music.
Purdy was considered Canada’s first true national poet, who helped define this country’s cultural identity. His poems reflected the issues that were relevant to Canadians, and spoke about the places in nature that we love. His work was described as Canadian pastoral. For his part, Acorn was nicknamed “The People’s Poet” for his support of the working class and the underprivileged, and his very left politics.
The two men were both free-verse poets and relentlessly modern in their craft. What is more important is that their poetry — their imaginative play with words, their startling images — run much deeper than these simplistic descriptions, and playwright Yee has managed to cleverly incorporate lines from their works into his play.
Yee not only quotes Purdy and Acorn, we also hear from T.S. Eliot, and Canadian Bliss Carmen. Irving Layton, James Reaney, and Earle Birney get a mention, and it was like being back in my Grade 11 English class when high schools still taught poetry.
Which brings us to the play. It has been said that without that friendship, we wouldn’t have their poetry. That they encouraged each other is clearly evident in the play, and Yee does a masterful job in alluding to the greatness that is to come. Yet, he also, in his writing, crafts two very different personalities, which makes the friendship all the more fascinating. Purdy is the settled family man, while Acorn is the tortured artist.
In short, what we have here are two men for whom poetry is a life-giving necessity. Yes, they talk about their war experiences, they talk about other poets, they talk about the mechanics of building the A-frame, they talk about their pasts, they talk about food and drink, they talk about their place in current Can Lit, but the core of Yee’s script is the central place given to the mystique of poetry, particularly to Acorn.
At the drop of a hat, Acorn comes out with beautiful poetic images, and the joke between them is that he should write them down, to which he quips, “I’ll remember it. I remember the good ones.”
There are some gripping moments. Acorn was injured in an explosion on a troop ship during the war, and this experience will impact his mental and physical health for the rest of his life. Yee gives us a hint of the lasting effect of this trauma. As well, Purdy convinces Acorn to go to a poetry conference in Kingston, which turns out to be a bad idea. There is, however, also humour, particularly Purdy’s ineptness as a builder.
There are also some insider allusions. For example, Purdy encourages Acorn to begin a romantic relationship with poet Gwendolyn MacEwen, assuring him that she is interested in him. Those in the know will remember that in the future, the two will have an absolutely disastrous two-year marriage. (The late Linda Griffiths wrote about it in her harrowing 1999 play Alien Creature: A Visitation from Gwendolyn MacEwen.)
As stated before, director Aquino has opted for a very theatrical approach — big, loud, and in your face, but it works. Kudos to Hollyman and Gonzalez-Vio for chewing up the scenery and presenting us with two unforgettable character portrayals, of two very unforgettable Canadian icons.
The Last Picture in the World
A hunched grey shape
framed by leaves
with lake water behind
standing on our
little point of land
like a small monk
in a green monastery
Live With Me on Earth Under the Invisible Daylight Moon
Live with me on Earth where so many signals are flown
Some in distress, some meant to cause distress;
Learn the distinguishment of which to answer, which to blast
Til the song of Earth’s survival shall incorporate our voices.
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