TJ Dawe is Fringe Festival royalty. You don’t really need this review, because TJ Dawe sells TJ Dawe. And there’s a reason for that; the unassuming curly-haired 36-year-old is a master storyteller. His speech is so soft and quick that you find yourself in disbelief that you can understand and follow everything he says; “surely this must have originally been intended for a 75-minute slot!” He deftly ties together disparate threads of narrative and symbolism in a way that makes perfect sense. Confessional stories are wrapped together with rants about keyboard and alphabet organization that produce the release of waves of laughter and ease audience tension. So, Dawe sells Dawe. His first show of Medicine of this Fringe, which I saw at 5:15 on Friday, was nearly sold out.
This is at least my fourth Dawe show featuring him as writer/performer; I couldn’t even count the ones I’ve seen that he’s been involved with. As far as I can tell, when compared to shows like A Canadian Bartender at Butlin’s (which had a particularly raucous pace, and, if I can recall back nine years, had the audience practically begging to call-and-response the recurring jokes), and Maxim and Cosmo (sex and language), Dawe’s shows have gotten more introspective and (apologies for lack of a better term) “new-agey” to date, exploring various psychological, spiritual and naturally pharmaceutical methods of explaining and connecting with the human soul. His last show, Lucky 9, revolved around the Enneagram model of personality- type mapping, and Medicine incorporates theories of the importance of touch and the eye-opening properties of ayahuasca, a psychotropic brew of vines and shrubs, when combined with group therapy. The “believer” qualities of these shows could make them hard to take for a natural skeptic who has a difficult time with these concepts, but Dawe’s nakedly personal retellings of his experiences, coupled with the occasional wink to what a strange journey this all is, mitigates the feeling that one is being sold a belief system. Dawe describes his process of self-discovery, trying to shake his “stupid friend” the defense mechanism with a weeklong retreat with Dr. Gabor Mate, who purports to break addictions to substances and habits alike. We’re treated to some fascinating descriptions of the ayahuasca ceremony (TRIGGER WARNING for those who have extreme difficulty with the discussion or sounds of vomit) and family scarring. This sounds painful, but the hour flies by, propelled by Dawe’s quickly-spoken monologue.
In a terrific satirical article, my friend and overall Toronto theatre superhero Pip Bradford mentions the “Fringe shows you absolutely must see,” aka the Fringe stereotypes we all know and love and hate. One of them is “Too Much Information You Never Wanted To Know About Me: The Solo Show By That Guy Who’s Been Touring The Fringe Circuit Since Time Immemorial.” On one hand, this is that kind of show, so don’t say we didn’t warn you. On the other hand, despite some comedic rants that don’t quite pay off (except in the moment, which to be fair is usually the most you can ask of standup), Dawe makes it interesting and funny and well-packaged enough that we don’t really mind the TMI – and he himself recognizes this stereotype and turns it on its head by going meta about his choice to incorporate it in his numerous Fringe shows, particularly this one. And, to be fair to Mr. Dawe, he can be forgiven for giving us TMI, because it’s not, really; we’ve been telling him that’s what we want for over a decade, and he keeps delivering admirably.