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Arts Festival Review: The Dentist's Chair

Arts Festival Review: The Dentist's Chair

Review by Lorriane Ward

The Dentist's Chair
Indian Ink Theatre Company
Soundings Theatre
6, 11-13 March at 7.30pm
7, 8, 14, 15 March at 6pm;
9 March 4pm; 16 March 2pm.
http://www.nzfestival.nzpost.co.nz/theatre/the-dentists-chair

The Soundings Theatre stage is set with large, solid pieces of scenery and translucent plastic screens. Two hillbilly musicians pick banjo and double base. The quiet anticipatory buzz of the audience is interrupted by two redneck fruit sellers, whose banter turns bawdy and then darkly murderous. She has been unfaithful. He has an axe.

He is William Kemmler, the first man to be executed by electric chair. The electric chair was invented, as a humane way of killing humans, by an American dentist called Albert Southwick.

A modern-day dentist, also called Albert Southwick, lives a life of quiet, unhappy mediocrity with his wife Judy and their adopted cleaning lady, Ruth. Haunted by his own failures and the fear that his wife is being unfaithful to him, Albert is visited by the ghost of William, who urges him towards electrifying revenge.

Judy, facing up to her own fears, is unable to connect with her husband. Ruth, cast out by her church accused of being a witch, fears being loveless and alone.

A basic fear of the audience, that of going to the dentist, is treated with gentle black humour. The last time I went to the dentist I think I paid for him and his family to have a holiday in Rarotonga. I enjoyed laughing nervously along with the others as the musicians play box-headed patients, subjected to a range of Black and Decker tools.

Those who place their trust in etymology, entomology and the Oxford English Dictionary may take umbrage at the show's explanation of the origin of the word 'butterfly'. Most will simply enjoy the rambunctious song that ensues.

The song 'Welcome to the Murder House' evokes memories of the School Dental Service, pays homage to the brutality of William Kemmler's death, and sets the scene for the murderous hotbed William is trying to create in Albert's home.

The performances are individually and collectively excellent. Highlights (among many) include Albert (Jacob Rajan) being eaten alive by his newspaper; William (Gareth Williams) creating and celebrating an electric chair; Ruth (Mia Blake) wearing the brace from hell in her search for perfect teeth; and the dignity and authority maintained by Judy (Peta Rutter), no matter how undignified her position.

The plot is interwoven with biblical imagery. However it is a deus ex machina in the form of a butterfly that sets the living characters free to follow their destinies and their hearts desires and vanquishes the ghost William. Or does it?

*********

The Dentist's Chair on the Arts Festival website (includes video)
Scoop Full Coverage: Arts Festival 2008

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