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NBR – Dentists Chair: visually entrancing work

By: National Business Review

A lot of the time The Dentist’s Chair seems to be a combination of medieval morality play and 19th century vaudeville, as characters crack jokes, make asides to the audience, sing ballads about their predicaments and make vaguely moralistic statements.

But this is just a stylistic veneer on a play which provides insights into problems about people – jealousy, fear of the known and unknown and an unnatural belief in God.

As well there is the failure to look into oneself for both the problem and the answers.

In a preamble to the play we meet William Kemmler and his wife Tilly who he disposes of fairly quickly because she has eyes on someone in the audience. For this Kemmler will eventually be disposed of by the state, the first man to be executed in the electric chair. This device we learn was invented by dentist Albert Southwick.

We jump forward a century to another dentist also called Albert Southwick who has a couple of problems: he is not a great dentist; he is not a great husband; he has at least one major skeleton in his closet; and is imprisoned by his past.

So when he begins to suspect his wife of infidelity he makes some decisions he will later regret.

The play examines the way people can fall apart when they don’t communicate but instead resort to belief in God, cutting themselves off from the outside world and allow themselves to be trapped by the past and scared to deal with the present.

The play may have a serious heart to it but the body of it is full of equal measures of tragedy and comedy.

It is also a visually entrancing work with a cleverly designed set by John Verryt that creates both physical and mental spaces. There are also lots of well-used props with some ingenious oversized pieces of dental equipment

Unlike other Indian Ink productions the characters in The Dentists Chair do not wear masks probably because the image they present to the audience and each other is a mask for the true self.

The dentist’s chair itself becomes something of a symbol about how, at some point in our lives, we have to confront pain, external or internal, which needs to be understood and resolved.

All the characters look and act as if they had morphed out of a comic book with readymade two-dimensional characters. But we slowly discover other layers to the personalities, which gives a play a subtle density.

Gareth Williams as the real and ghostly William Kemmler is able to create a menacing character and his songs such as Welcome to the murder House. These are a commentary on the action and are given a suitably unnerving and chilling delivery. At times he sounds like Mikel Rouse whose Failing Kansas was at the Wellington International Festival a few years ago.

Mia Blake gives an assured performance as the buc toothed Ruth, tormented by her appearance and her God.

In contrast to Ruth’s repressed sexuality, Peta Rutter as Albert’s wife Judy gives a lively performance as the one person who engages with the world, her colourful clothes highlighting her outgoing personality.

Jacob Rajan as Albert is a consummate actor. He does the comedy, the pathos, the drama, the depression with equal understanding. He inhabits the stage as though it is his natural environment.

The two musicians, David Ward and Isaac Smith are a brilliant invention and they are well used both as players and actors

One of the overarching qualities of the play is the dialogue that carries the stories forward linking them across time. The comedy is tinged with grief and the drama leavened with a light touch, which gives the play a magical and inspiring quality.

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