I’m not sure what exactly I expected going in to TJ Dawe’s latest show, Marathon, which is only in Edmonton for a two night run that ends tonight. Based on all I’d read about the show and the conversation TJ and I had leading up to my preview of the show, I knew Marathon would be a tangled web of stories that would ultimately culminate in a revelation about knowing oneself, especially your “blind spot”, and accepting that you’re not a flawless person and trying to overcome those things that hold you back.
I suppose I thought that TJ’s “autobiographical monologue” storytelling method would be similar to the storytelling style you have on the podcast The Moth. The style the podcast uses is very relaxed and casual: we’re meeting at a bar, having a beer and I’m listening to you tell a profound and deeply personal story. The kind that comes when you’re in between just enough and too many beers.
Instead, in Marathon, TJ presents something that is very much still THEATRE, but in a way that is delightfully genuine and personal nonetheless.
Marathon is certainly autobiographical, but presentationally autobiographical, unlike what The Moth does. With a proper modular stage raising the already tall TJ another 18 inches over the seated audience and all of the chairs placed perpendicular to the stage, it’s clear that TJ is here to tell his story from the perspective of entertaining us. Or teaching us. Or enlightening us. Take your pick. All of the usual conventions of theatre still apply.
I wasn’t sure whether the overtly presentational format would block me from connecting to TJ’s autobiographical monologue. There’s a difference between how you connect to a character in a play – knowing that you’ve entered and become absorbed in the world of the play – and how you connect to someone who’s telling a true, personal story in the real world (which happens to be with him on a stage and me in a chair, lined up with all the other audience members). By priming the audience in all materials about the show and even at the very beginning of the show by saying the story is true and told by the person who’s lived it, it’s clear TJ wants the audience to connect to it personally, but the presentational format felt a little at odds with that intent. Or maybe it’s not, because a huge theme of the show is TJ’s “blind spot” of connecting with other people and enjoying social interaction – the presentational format and maintaining traditional theatre conventions underline that discomfort with other people. In any case, I did connect deeply to Marathon, spending most of the 75 minute run time enthralled by TJ’s stories. Whether it was the priming before seeing the show, good acting, or whether it was genuine, what TJ was saying felt so real, especially the painful moments of his story which TJ’s body language suggested he still felt acutely.
TJ’s storytelling style – that of weaving multiple, seemingly unrelated storylines a together until suddenly, when we reach the end of the night, we find they’re all tied neatly together in a bow. While TJ’s energy and constant near stream-of-thought monologue is a little overwhelming at first, it does keep you engaged throughout the show. Like a sitcom showing different storylines, you eventually become invested in each one – figuring out what he’s really saying, cheering for him to succeed, groaning when he’s unable to. It’s a little like the double helix staircase in the Vatican Museums: it’s gorgeous, a little overwhelming to look at, and you only really understand it when you get to the bottom where the two staircases come together and you stare up at the structure that took you through the journey you just had.
Marathon by TJ Dawe runs at the PCL Studio in the ATB Arts Barns for one more performance, April 18. Tickets are $21 through Fringe Theatre Adventures.