Labrador retrieved

LABRADOR, written and performed by T.J. Dawe. Presented by Big Sandwich Productions at the Robert Gill Theatre. July 6 at.

LABRADOR, written and performed by T.J. Dawe. Presented by Big Sandwich Productions at the Robert Gill Theatre. July 6 at 9:30 pm, July 7 at 5 pm, July 9 at 2 pm, July 10 at 8 pm, July 11 at 11 pm, July 13 at 12:30 pm, July 15 at 6:30 pm.

Rating: NNNNN

Don’t look at Canada’s Fringe circuit as a way to make a fortune. Or, for first-time performers, a reputation. Sometimes even good reviews won’t pack a house.

Vancouver’s T.J. Dawe learned that lesson the hard way two years ago, touring his one-man show Tired Cliches across the country. By the time he got to Toronto, his car needed a new axle and rad and he had to take up a collection at the last performance just to be able to travel to Winnipeg.

That 1998 show — a manic, physical riff on topics as diverse as night jobs, cat vomit and traffic — never failed to hold its audience as Dawe jumped from one seeming tangent to another, always pulling viewers along as he leapfrogged toward a central connecting moment.

He’s back with another solo work, Labrador, that looks not only at his family history but also at the nature of one-person shows. He’s become an old hand at the genre and the roller-coaster problems of touring.

“Solo pieces are probably the most frequent kind of Fringe production,” he says by phone from Montreal. “But I’m really against the kind of wank where an actor writes a one-person show about being an actor. Why does the audience care about your career?”

Labrador draws on Dawe’s strength as a performer, making a statement, then offering an opinion about it or explaining a related issue, yet always returning to his point of departure. It’s a natural format for him — he even talks this way in interviews.

“I realized that I could carry this sort of thing off the first time I got stoned, when I became really talkative rather than quiet. I saw that I was playing to the entire room. Everyone else had shut up, and I kept up this stream of conversation, wandering but coming back to my topic, holding everyone’s attention.”

Understanding that theatre companies weren’t going to jump to hire him after graduation, Dawe began working on the Fringe circuit with one-person shows. During the rest of the year, he keeps his day job — tracing lost and late parcels for Canada Post. He had the dubious pleasure of tracing his own lost application to the Winnipeg Fringe — ultimately, he didn’t get in — and was only able to offer himself a postage refund.

There’s no question that Dawe thrives in the Fringe spotlight. He’s taken Labrador to the 450-show Adelaide Fringe and returned with a binder of ecstatic reviews, and last year delighted Montreal audiences even though his performance slot was 2 am.

“What I do isn’t very far from the kind of storytelling someone did around a campfire 20,000 years ago. Well, maybe there’s a bit more stand-up, but it’s the same idea.”

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