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vancouverplays review


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— TJ Dawe

by TJ Dawe
Firehall Arts Centre
Jan. 3-13
604-689-0926 or 

(This is Jerry's review of the original Firehall production from last January.)

A man standing on a bare stage in jeans and a tee shirt talking about his neuroses might not sound like your idea of a great night at the theatre. But TJ Dawe’s Medicine is a fascinating, often mesmerizing show. You get entertainment, education and therapy, with a little idolatry thrown in for good measure. 

Dawe has been called the Lord of the Fringe for his remarkable successes as writer, actor and director across the North American fringe festival circuit. He has performed more than a dozen of his own autobiographical solo pieces and directed, among others, Charlie Ross’s phenomenal One Man Lord of the Rings.

In Medicine, Dawe investigates the psychological roots of his artistic practice. It turns out that performing solo at fringe festivals provides him with certain protective mechanisms related to more profound psychological and emotional problems from which he has long suffered. I won’t give away the details because Dawe’s careful parceling out of information is important to the monologue’s dramatic structure. Let’s just say that his symptoms are graphic and disturbing.

The heroes of Dawe’s story are Vancouver therapist Dr. Gabor Maté and the Amazonian hallucinogen ayahuasca.  Dawe had read Maté’s books about stress and addiction, and decided to attend one of his retreats that combine group therapy and the ingestion of ayahuasca. Maté claims that the substance, illegal in Canada but long used in Peruvian religious rituals, facilitates a person’s insight into their repressed emotions.

Maté theorizes that we develop our personality in early childhood as a device for coping with emotional trauma. But as we mature and change, the coping mechanism (“a stupid friend who only wants to help”) remains static and becomes the problem. Ayahuasca “can show you what you need to see”—what your stress-relieving behaviours are hiding, and how they have become destructive.

With its shamans and music and vomiting, Dawe could easily have produced a narrative of the retreat as New Age parody. A lot of his skillful, charming storytelling is genuinely funny. But he had come there to try to save himself, he was committed to buying in, so he approached the situation earnestly, with an open mind. The experience for him proves transformational. He has nothing but praise for Maté’s sensitivity and perception. And though his initial experience of ayahuasca is horrible, it ends up being the catalyst for his self-revelation. 

Along the way Dawe provides some entertaining digressions that turn out not to be digressions at all: on the irrationality of the organization of the standard keyboard, and of the names of the months. I’m also betting that sales of anthropologist Ashley Montagu’s Touching: The Human Significance of the Skin surge after each performance of Medicine. Dawe makes it sound like one of the smartest books of all time.

The ending has an oh wow quality when Dawe realizes what has been the root of his emotional problems all along. You can’t help admiring his bravery and cheering his discovery. But the intellectual neatness of the resolution struck me as a little glib and one-dimensional, like a Freudian punchline.  

In fact Dawe provides all kinds of juicy insights into his early life—for example, his father was his Catholic high school principal—that a Freudian therapist might have used to get at the source of Dawe’s ills without his having to drink ayahuasca tea. But within the framework that Gabor Maté constructed, ayahuasca had to be the essential ingredient. I remain a little skeptical.

Dr. Maté joined Dawe in the post-show talkback for an opening night audience full of true believers in the miraculous properties of ayahuasca. Dawe will host talkbacks after every show and Maté will join him again on Jan. 11 and 12.

Jerry Wasserman