By Liz Nicholls, 12thnight.ca
It was a pungent, not to say eye-watering, debut.
Fifteen years ago, an actor/improviser of expandable comic talents got enlisted by Teatro La Quindicina for a new screwball comedy.
The play? Vidalia, named for the sweet, high-end Georgia onion worshipped by foodies. In a role custom-made for him by Stewart Lemoine — the playwright’s usual practice — Mark Meer played an innocent suit salesman drawn against his will into a corporate espionage intrigue of escalating complications.
“As the lights went down on the play,” recalls Meer, “Briana Buckmaster and I, smiles on our faces, had to take a big bite out of an onion. Vidalias were not in season alas. So we had to bite into cooking onions….There was a spit bucket.”
Since Teatro has always prided itself on having real food — goulash, pastries, bacon-wrapped oysters — not plastic facsimiles, onstage, this teary debut outing with the company seems particularly unfair.
Back at Teatro for the first of two productions this summer, Meer is amused — even though, starting Thursday in Teatro’s season-launching revival of The Salon of the Talking Turk, he won’t be sampling any gourmet snacks.
In the title role of the 2005 Lemoine comedy to which Meer returns, he is once again in a box. Which is to say a sort of antiqued booth which he occupies as the life-sized automaton purchased by a ‘20s socialite at an auction in upstate New York.
“I’m sure it’ll be a home away from home by the time we open,” says Meer genially. After all, confinement can have no terrors: he has, in his time, spent 36 straight hours in a Lava Monster mask in a Die-Nasty Soap-A-Thon of yore.
Meer, who has played A.I.’s and robots in a number of video games, and the odd stage show, doesn’t consider The Salon of the Talking Turk an anomaly in the Lemoine canon. “There’s a whole subset of Stewart’s plays the dwell in the world of the fantastic,” he says, “The Noon Witch springs to mind of course, the Queen of the Willis and the Erl King (in Fever-Land). Would you call it magical realism, the plays where Stewart’s urbane socialite characters bump up against the supernatural?”
A dozen years ago when Meer originated the Talking Turk — and cut his signature shoulder-blade long black hair for the occasion — the improv star had arrived in this scripted play from innumerable unscripted productions on the Varscona stage.
His sultry Euro alter-ego Susanna Patchouli was hosting monthly live variety chat shows there. Weekly in Die-Nasty Meer was playing an amusingly literate assortment of nerds, geeks, freaks — doddering old quacks, éminences grises, mean little kids, generals, scheming bastard sons, assorted psychopaths. For Die-Nasty’s summer Fringe edition, he was making repeat appearances, by popular demand, as Dancing Man, a glum avant-garde jester.
He’d even gotten married on the Varscona stage, in full un-dead regalia, to fellow actor/improviser (and playwright) Belinda Cornish.
Meer was already improv royalty in this town when he originated the Talking Turk. The intervening dozen years have enhanced this comedy star status in improv and sketch, on TV, radio, and video game screen.
Tiny Plastic Men, the quirky TV series for which Meer has written episodes (and in which he appears) has gained a following. After a five-year hiatus the APTN sketch comedy series Caution: May Contain Nuts re-assembled its cast to shoot a fourth season (to be aired in the fall). “And hopes are very high for a fifth season,” says Meer, a writing consultant on the show who was particularly pleased by having scenes with special guest Colin Mochrie.
The Irrelevant Show, for which Meer writes and performs, “is one of CBC Radio’s top comedies,” he reports. The stage version is just back from sold-out stops on the West Coast.
Meer’s “video game work,” as he modestly puts it, has acquired cult status, in the figure of Commander Shepard from Bioware’s Mass Effect series. That line of work continues with The Long Dark, “a very Canadian video game,” as Mark grins.
The Hinterland Studios production “sets out to make a very realistic post-apocalyptic survival game — no zombies!— in the Canadian North, after a geo-magnetic event knocks out all power.” Meer’s character is a bush pilot who crashes.
In a nutshell, the goal of the game is “surviving as long as you can in the Canadian North. It’s been described as Player vs. Canada in some of the reviews.” Meer laughs. “Margaret Atwood tweeted about it a couple of months ago…. You don’t get much more Canadian than that.”
The long-form Dungeons & Dragons improv over which he presides as Dungeon Master, has been running at Rapid Fire Theatre every Saturday night in May. It’s a concept he took to Dad’s Garage in Atlanta, fertile ground since that’s where DragonCom happens. Meer says approvingly, “it’s a strong local nerd community.”
He’s improvised at a Berlin festival this winter; he was at the 50-hour Improvathan in London. “It was a Game of Thrones theme this year so I had to be there!”
In Die-Nasty’s current Renaissance season, which ends with Monday night’s episode, the improv virtuoso has been playing the villainous Douche of Venice, whose avowed goal is to make Venice great again. “He’s very much a Donald Trump stand-in, but is in no way an impression… I play him with a posh English accent.” Meer laughs. “I don’t know exactly what that says: I have nothing against the English; I’m married to English lady.”
The Douche’s agenda includes building a giant wall around the city “and finding scapegoats.” Last week, he fired the captain of the guard, “out of the catapult.” Meer permits himself a sigh; Trump’s gifts to comedy are, after all, doubled-edged. “I’m swamped for material…There seems to be a segment of the Venetian population that supports him no matter what he does.”
There’s more improv and sketch comedy to come in the Meer summer schedule. For its Fringe run at the Garneau Theatre, Harold of Galactus, the two-hander improv he shares with Chris Craddock, will make use of the Garneau Theatre screen to create “a multi-media experience.” Fellow improviser Jacob Banigan will do “live animation at the side of the stage, projected onto the screen behind.” Gordon’s Big Bald Head, which offers to improvise any show listed in the Fringe program, returns to its original home, the Varscona.
Meanwhile, there are scripted Teatro comedies on that stage. After Meer reprises his role as an automaton, he’ll be in Jana O’Connor’s new screwball comedy Going Going Gone, opening at Teatro June 22. “I’m playing Other Men,” he says happily. “Six or eight other men, actually. I’ll be wearing many hats and wigs.”
The Salon of the Talking Turk
Theatre: Teatro La Quindicina
Written and directed by: Stewart Lemoine
Starring: Mark Meer, Braydon Dowler-Coltman, Shannon Blanchet, Louise Lambert
Where: Varscona Theatre, 10329 83 Ave.
Running: Thursday through June 10
Tickets: 780-433-3399, teatroq.com