NZ Arts Festival 2008, Soundings Theatre
March 6-16 | Reviewed by Helen Sims

The Dentist’s Chair marks a change in style for the Indian Ink Theatre Company. Their trademark mask work is still present, although not for all characters, but rather than focusing on Indian figures, the characters are ethnically nondescript. There are no heroes in the story, indeed, the philosophy of the piece is that “We can learn as much from our heroes as our monsters”. Instead the play focuses on a pitiable dentist who has lost his nerve, Albert Southwick, and his nagging wife and practice assistant, Judy. Albert is fascinated with dentist related history, however remotely related. This retrospectively accounts for the rather delightfully bizarre opening of the play – two characters in period costume with thick Southern American lower class accents enter trying to sell the audience fruit. They are William Kemmler and his fiancée Tilly. They banter with the audience on stage light-heartedly until William murders Tilly with an axe for being unfaithful. This results in him being the first man to go to the electric hair, apparently invented by a dentist, rather than hung. A quick scene change reveals Albert has been telling this tale to a petrified patient in the chair.

Judy (Peta Rutter) scolds Albert (Jacob Rajan) for his story telling and his general lack of confidence – she now has to give all the injections. The reason for this is revealed in a laboured way as the show progresses – it has to do with a medical mishap many years ago. Albert’s confidence was shattered by this and an affair that his wife had as he started to withdraw into himself. Now he believes she is having an affair again (with the same mysterious man holding an umbrella) and this begins another downward spiral, urged on by a cackling, malevolent Kemmler (Gareth Williams) who haunts Albert. Thrown into this messy situation is the new cleaning girl, Ruth (Mia Blake, who also plays Tilly). She has been rescued by Judy from living on the streets, and despite her hyper religious statements she becomes a temptress of Albert.

From here the storyline gets increasingly muddled, although the plot is actually very thin – as an example, after Albert accuses his wife of having an affair and tries to kill her in a self made electric chair, she forgives him and they reconcile after they both see a blue butterfly that has inexplicably managed to fly into the dentist’s practice. While this is obviously meant to be surreal, it comes off more as ridiculous and convenient – as does the ending, although I won’t give that away. The play also becomes a mess of different styles. Live music is preformed on stage by David Ward and Isaac Smith, with singing by Williams and Blake, which is excellent, but doesn’t blend with the production well at all. Surrealism sits awkwardly with realism; musical theatre elements with more conventional stage play elements. The play is heavy with loaded lines and symbols. The second half of the show is at least more interesting, although as mentioned above, resolution of the conflict is simply too neat.

Although Rajan’s characterisation is predictably excellent, Albert is an underdeveloped character and doesn’t generate enough sympathy to care about his eventual redemption. The most interesting character is Kemmler, and Gareth Williams, a recent Toi Whakaari graduate, is excellent in the role in both his acting and singing. Mia Blake felt wasted in an uninspiring role as Ruth, and Rutter failed to generate much of an impression at all. Both the musicians take the chair as patients of Albert and generate humour with their boxed in heads. The technical elements of the production are of a high standard, with a thoughtfully designed and versatile set being used to generate several settings and a stunning backdrop that often had water running down it to simulate rain.

This production contained many excellent elements – they just do not blend well. The result is a highly uneven show. It probably should have been left at the interesting idea stage – in its current form it doesn’t work as a coherent piece of theatre. I have a feeling this may have been why the show spent so long being devised (the programme says it was a “struggle” - about 2 years in development I hear, with a planned launch tour having to be cancelled). The larger themes are imperfectly explored; the microcosm of the story is too thin to sustain interest. The blending of styles that Indian Ink has achieved so seamlessly in the past just doesn’t happen here. The Dentist’s Chair is ultimately disappointing and unsatisfying, which is a shame given the evident talent of those involved in the production.