Painfully funny

Out of a stressful visit to the dentist comes laughter, empathy in absurdist play Le Soulier

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Nine out of 10 kids hate going to the dentist.

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Nine out of 10 kids hate going to the dentist.

One out of 10 despises it with every periodontal fibre of their being.

Benoit, the eight-year-old boy in David Paquet’s Le Soulier, running to Feb. 4 at Théâtre Cercle Molière, falls into the second category. The tiny tot tut-tuts the tooth-cleaning so aggressively that every person in the office — his mother, the dentist and the receptionist — has their world temporarily thrown into chaos.

Gaetan Nerincx photo

Joey Lespérance gives Félix Beauchamp a checkup in David Paquet’s Le Soulier, which runs until Feb. 4 at Théâtre Cercle Molière.

The floss goes flying.

Geneviève Pelletier , the artistic director of TCM, doesn’t mind the dentist now, but she remembers her first cavity. And her second. And her third. And her fourth. And her fifth. And her sixth. And her seventh. And her eighth. And her ninth.

She found out about all of them when she was about six, at her first dental appointment; the times were different, she says.

But unlike Benoit, Pelletier did not have a tantrum. At least, not that she remembers. “I’m not big on displaying huge emotions,” she says. “If I did freak out, it was probably an interior tantrum.”

As anyone who has had or witnessed a tantrum, it’s not usually about what’s happening at the breaking point. It’s about everything else that happened before.

A child losing their cool is a mercurial situation, and to restore balance requires time and energy. In this work from Paquet — who has won the Governor General’s Literary Award for French-language drama — the audience sits at a remove from the stress, which presents opportunities for physical humour in the traditions of commedia dell’arte, vaudeville and burlesque. The stress becomes funny. Painfully, truthfully funny.

Pelletier says the show makes use of Paquet’s absurdist, surrealist approach to make sense of fairly complex and sensitive issues. With a non-linear, recursive storytelling style, the show attempts to take a 360-degree view of the earth-shattering pain of a child, and of adults, at a loss for words, overpowered by the spoken volume of life’s grandest actions.

In commedia dell’arte, a theatre style which came to prominence in Europe between the 16th and 18th centuries, stock characters rule: there are clowns (zanni), old men (pantalone), harlequins (arlecchino), and of course, the doctor (il dottore).

The dentist is a character who automatically connotes certain expectations. In media depictions, they are often fastidious, vengeful and as in the cases of Dr. Orin Scrivello in Little Shop of Horrors, or Christian Szell, the fictional Nazi dentist played by Lawrence Olivier in John Schlesinger’s film Marathon Man, they are sadistic merchants of evil mining their patients’ molars for financial gain. “Is it safe?” Dr. Szell asks repeatedly as he drills into Babe Levy’s (Dustin Hoffman) teeth without anesthesia.

The scene is a terrifying one, and somewhat captures a child’s worst nightmare about sitting in the dentist’s chair. They really aren’t sure whether it’s safe at all. They aren’t sure if they can trust a complete stranger with something so pure as their smile.

Hence the tantrum. Hence the passion. Hence the often comical displays of terror, often misconstrued as illustrations of temper.

“The tantrum itself triggers the whole story to come forward,” says Pelletier. “It allows us to see how the characters deal with, what we call in our individualistic world, the quest for happiness.”

The tooth-cleaning game can be a real grind when dealing with other forms of erosion.

ben.waldman@winnipegfreepress.com

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Ben Waldman

Ben Waldman
Reporter

Ben Waldman covers a little bit of everything for the Free Press.

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